The U.S. Air Force’s latest plan for the Transformational Satellite communications system, or T-Sat, could use a dose of tough scrutiny this year by the White House and Congress, who in the current fiscal environment must ensure that U.S. taxpayers do not wind up spending another billion or so dollars only to see the program redirected again.

The Air Force in December canceled a long-running effort to design a super-high capacity, secure T-Sat system capable of supporting an increasingly mobile and information-hungry military in favor of a less-ambitious program bearing the same name. In January, the service awarded competitors Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems and Lockheed Martin Space Systems six-month contracts worth $75 million apiece to study the scaled-back system; the total combined value of the companies’ work on the T-Sat program has now reached $1.586 billion.

That’s a lot of money spent with very little yield aside from press releases touting advances in T-Sat technologies that in some cases have fallen out of the program. For example, the laser-optical satellite crosslinks that were a key element of T-Sat as previously envisioned are no longer planned for the initial block of satellites. Other technologies demonstrated as part of the now canceled risk-reduction effort will be more than 10 years old when they finally reach orbit.

In spite of the latest changes, T-Sat’s estimated cost is still $11 billion, a figure that, if history is any indication, will grow substantially once development begins in earnest. Meanwhile, “scaled back,” as it turns out, is a relative term: according to Gary Payton, deputy secretary of the Air Force for space, the satellites as envisioned are 9-ton behemoths – roughly twice the weight of the current Milstar secure communications satellites and 50 percent heavier than the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites slated to launch starting next year. Experts have long warned that satellites of great size and complexity are not only highly susceptible to cost growth but also represent a risky concentration of investment on a single, vulnerable platform.

Mr. Payton says the Air Force now plans to award the T-Sat prime contract in 2010, an event that presumably will usher in a full-scale development program lasting some nine years; assuming no further delays, the first launch would take place in 2019, rather than 2016 as previously planned.

Meanwhile, the Air Force in January issued a draft request for proposals for up to six more of the current-generation Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites, double the number currently under contract to Boeing. This is a prudent and necessary measure in light of the latest T-Sat developments. But it does not address the larger issue, which is that T-Sat has the look right now of a program that does not know where it is going, and which could burn through tremendous amounts of money in the next few years stumbling through a maze of blind alleys.

T-Sat was hatched at a time of relative economic prosperity and skyrocketing defense budgets. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates – an appointee of former President George W. Bush who has agreed to stay on under new President BarackObama – has publicly warned, those days are coming to an end.

Mr. Gates and his reform-minded Pentagon leadership team need to take a close look to see if this program has been restructured for success, and not merely to survive another few years before someone finally has the nerve, or is forced, to pull the plug. This should be part of a comprehensive review of the Defense Department’s satellite communications needs and how best to meet them – using an integrated combination of military and commercial systems.

If the Defense Department does not undertake such a review on its own, the White House or Congress should direct it to do so.

One option worth considering is to buy additional AEHF platforms beyond the four currently planned while studying the potential for block upgrades both to that system and to Wideband Global. These upgrades could incorporate some of the technologies currently – or originally – envisioned for T-Sat, such as the Internet Protocol router that is said to be at the heart of T-Sat’s ability to serve a far greater number of users simultaneously than current systems. This evolutionary approach helps keep costs and risk down and has been applied successfully to long-running programs such as the Defense Support Program missile warning system, the first satellite for which was launched in the 1970s.

In parallel, the Air Force could carry out a focused research and development program designed to ensure that the latest communications technologies are available to the military. Some of these technologies could be tested in space aboard commercial satellites, a low-cost option that is getting a trial run this year with the planned launch of the Pentagon’s Internet Router in Space experiment aboard an Intelsat satellite.

Even though the Pentagon examined similar options during its review last year of the previous T-Sat program – a review that endorsed the now-abandoned design – they are worth another look, perhaps by a fresh and more critical set of eyes. Should such a review confirm that the T-Sat program as currently planned is logical, affordable and has a reasonable chance of success, so be it. But it is hard to imagine that being the case given the history of not just this program but military space programs in general, not to mention the nation’s new fiscal circumstances.