House Panel Proposes Zeroing Missile Tracking System

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. House defense oversight panel’s recommendation not to fund a proposed missile tracking satellite system next year drew fire from one prominent member, who nonetheless endorsed the broader measure that contains the provision.

All present members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee — including Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) — voted May 4 to affirm the mark-up of their portion of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which is scheduled to be considered by the full committee May 11. The subcommittee, which oversees nuclear weapon, missile defense, deep strike and space programs, provided no funding for the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) next year, according to a May 3 committee press release.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency requested $160.8 million in 2012 for the PTSS, which as currently conceived would be a constellation of low-orbiting satellites providing cuing information to ground-based radars and interceptor systems. It is the operational version of the experimental Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a pair of Northrop Grumman-built satellites that recently demonstrated so-called birth-to-death tracking: the ability to track a missile’s flight from launch to atmospheric re-entry.

Under current PTSS plans, another demonstration satellite would be built by the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., prior to the development of operational satellites. In its press release, the House Armed Services Committee provided no explanation for its decision not to fund PTSS.

Ruppersberger, whose district hosts the Applied Physics Laboratory, defended the PTSS as an essential part of the U.S. national security space architecture.

“Cuts to our space programs will have serious consequences on our ability to dominate space,” Ruppersberger said. “The Chinese continue to launch systems into space that could cause severe harm to the United States. We must do more to ensure our space health and safety and not cut programs that help protect it. I believe eliminated funding for PTSS is the wrong course of action.”

Overall, the subcommittee recommended spending $79.5 million less on military space programs next year than the Pentagon’s proposed $10.2 billion.

The legislation approves the defense secretary’s plan to procure two additional Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications satellites under a fixed-price contract as part of a wider initiative intended to boost the efficiency of the Pentagon’s space procurement system. Known as Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency, the effort features block buys of satellite systems so that contractors can order parts in quantity.

At the same time, however, the subcommittee proposed transferring $142.2 million from the U.S. Air Force’s proposed $974.5 million AEHF budget for 2012 to a separate effort to develop military satellite communications technology.

The bill recommends providing just $10 million of the $134.5 million requested to launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which would utilize a satellite platform originally assembled for the long-defunct Triana Earth observation satellite.

Also included in the bill is a measure that would repeal previously enacted legislation mandating that commercial imagery procured by the Pentagon starting in 2011 come from satellites with a 1.5-meter imaging aperture. The current law presents an obstacle to procuring imagery from the current generation of commercial satellites, whose imaging apertures are 1.1 meters in diameter.

Reflecting concerns about the U.S. rocket-making industrial base, the bill directs the White House to devise a national propulsion strategy that examines the impact of the space shuttle’s impending retirement and the cancellation of NASA’s follow-on Constellation program on the U.S. defense and intelligence community. The plan should include recommendations for “synchronizing plans, programs and budgets across the government to strengthen the solid rocket motor and liquid rocket engine industrial base,” the press release states.

In missile defense, the subcommittee recommended spending $109.7 million more next year than the $10.1 billion requested by the White House. The missile defense provisions of the bill include:

  • An increase of $50 million over the request of $565.4 million for production of Standard Missile 3 Block 1B sea-based interceptors.
  • A $40 million boost above the $424.5 million request for development of the Standard Missile 3 Block 2A interceptor.
  • An increase of $100 million over the $1.2 billion request for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system, which protects U.S. territory against strategic missile threats.

The increase for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense is a bone of contention among members of the subcommittee. “While we agree on the need for effective and proven missile defenses, we disagree on the need for a $100 million funding increase to Ground-based Midcourse missile defense which was included in the mark,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to having engaging debates with my colleagues on missile defense provisions and on nuclear weapons policy at full committee next week.”