Editorial: A Parting of the Ways?

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  Space News Business

Editorial: A Parting of the Ways?

posted: 10 October 2008
04:32 pm ET






Although there seems to be some residual hope that the military and intelligence community can somehow come to terms on a joint radar satellite program in the wake of the Space Radar’s cancellation, the Pentagon appears to be hedging its bets.

John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, in July initiated a study to examine the military utility of radar satellite technologies that have emerged commercially and internationally in recent years. If these relatively low-cost yet capable systems prove suited to the military’s near-term needs, and if there is funding available, Mr. Young anticipates being able to field new capabilities in space and on the ground by 2012.

Mr. Young said these capabilities would be available to both military and intelligence officials, but the prospect of this becoming a joint effort seems slim. Alden Munson, deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition, said in a recent interview that should the Pentagon go ahead with the type of program envisioned by Mr. Young, the intelligence community would pursue a separate system tailored to its own needs to replace the classified radar satellites now on orbit or in development.

One of the biggest difficulties the two sides had on the Space Radar program was reconciling the military’s desire for the ability to detect moving targets on the ground worldwide with the intelligence community’s requirement for very highly detailed imagery. It turned out that a system capable of performing both missions would have been so large and so complex as to be unaffordable.

In ordering up the study, Mr. Young made no mention of moving target indication, and it isn’t clear whether the systems he’s interested in could be adapted and deployed in sufficient numbers to effectively perform that function. What the memo does say is that given the advances across the industrial base in radar satellite technology, military forces have a “fortuitous opportunity to realize a capability that appears ‘good enough’ and is deployable in the near term.”

Given that there are no commercial radar satellites, it is fair to assume that systems deployed by other countries, such as ‘s Radarsat-2 and ‘s TecSAR, are the ones that have captured Mr. Young’s attention. He is absolutely correct to be giving these and other systems a close look: The Pentagon doesn’t get – much less take – very many opportunities to capitalize on space-related research and development investments made by other countries to quickly field new capabilities.

One of the appealing aspects of the off-the-shelf type of procurement Mr. Young seems to have in mind – based on his assessment that these commercially available systems are good enough in the near term – is that it comes with built-in protection against so-called requirements creep. This is the phenomenon in which developers and prospective users of a system cannot resist the temptation to try and pile on every capability imaginable, making it difficult if not impossible to field the system at a reasonable cost. This is a huge problem with space programs because there aren’t that many of them, and once a satellite is launched it is tough to add new bells and whistles.

Mr. Young’s initiative also says something about the ability of the military and the intelligence community to work together, although exactly what it says is not clear. It might be that for certain types of space-based ground- surveillance capabilities, no matter how similar they seem, there just isn’t enough commonality between the military and intelligence requirements to satisfy both with a single system. On the other hand, it could be that in the wake of Space Radar’s demise, the two sides�� simply got tired of trying.

Mr. Munson wouldn’t rule out resuming work with the Defense Department on a next-generation radar system, but added that if the two sides are to cooperate, they need to get down to business. Obviously, the Pentagon first must evaluate the study findings, at least some of which should be in by now: Mr. Young’s memo called for an acquisition strategy and related documentation to be ready by Sept. 30.

If the conclusion is that these new radar technologies can indeed enhance and allied military operations at an affordable cost, the question that will remain is whether the military still might do as well or better by investing a similar amount of money in the next-generation system being developed by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. The Pentagon must be prepared to clearly answer this question should it opt to strike out in its own direction.