Keeping Surveillance Satellites on Congress’ Radar Screen

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Profile: Taylor Lawrence, VP and GM for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Systems, Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems

A s staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the late 1990s, Taylor Lawrence was instrumental in securing funds for a two-satellite mission to prove the feasibility of a constellation of radar satellites serving both military and intelligence users.

But Congress terminated the project, known as Discoverer 2, in 2000 , right after Lawrence left Capitol Hill to go to work for Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Linthicum, Md. Six years later, virtually the same battle over the same concept is being waged, with Lawrence once again in the thick of it.

Lawrence and Northrop Grumman helped convince the U.S. Air Force to resurrect the demonstration mission in its 2006 budget request as a way to get Congress to reconsider its decision last year to derail the service’s effort to develop an operational constellation of radar surveillance satellites for image-gathering and moving-target detection. Northrop Grumman is angling for a contract to lead the demonstration effort.

But Congress has given little indication that it will be any more receptive to the operational Space Radar or the demonstration than it has been in the past. In fact, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, in marking up the 2006 defense authorization bill May 12, cut $126 million from the Air Force’s $226 million request for the Space Radar and recommended that the program be restructured.

Lawrence spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

Satellites typically take many years to develop and launch. What makes you confident that a two-satellite Space Radar demonstration could be ready to fly in 2008?

The underlying technology is something we have been developing for the last five years. Right now we have a prototype sensor panel that is being tested on the ground.

Can you give any examples of when Northrop Grumman has built satellites that quickly?

We’ve done it before, but I can’t give specific examples in an unclassified setting.

Should the Pentagon be doing more subscale satellite demonstrations like that proposed for the Space Radar?

I think those are good. When you’re really pushing the envelope on things like laser communications, or operationally responsive space, I think demonstrations are a good thing to do, but you can’t let them drag out forever. You need to focus, get them done, learn from them and move on to the bigger program. You can’t get so focused on the demos that you don’t get to the end objective.

How much work are you doing with Northrop Grumman Space Technology, the former TRW aerospace and defense business?

It’s difficult to say in dollar value. But we’re a subcontractor to them in the competition for the operational Space Radar satellites. We’re also working with them in the competition for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program called the Innovative Space Based Radar Antenna Technology effort, which is intended to develop a new Space Radar antenna that could unfurl in space and help enable surveillance from higher orbits.

We brought in officials from Northrop Grumman Space Technology to help us on the Space Based Infrared System missile warning program, where we are providing the sensor to Lockheed Martin. When that program ran into difficulty, a number of very senior people from Northrop Grumman Space Technology helped us institute very rigorous processes for testing.

Northrop Grumman signed a consent decree upon its acquisition of TRW that requires it to continue acting as a supplier to other prime contractors. Has this limited the benefit of the acquisition in any way?

I would characterize it as formalizing our business model, which we would do even without the consent decree . The consent decree requires us to act as a supplier of space payloads in the radar, optical and infrared arenas, and requires Northrop Grumman Space Technology to competitively select payloads for programs on which they are the prime.

The business principle at Electronic Systems has always been to be a supplier when we can. Without the consent decree , we’d have competed for and won a role on the Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Space Technology teams for Space Radar. I don’t think the consent decree changed our behavior, other than we interact with a compliance officer and his staff that formalize our business model.

Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in a recent speech that space acquisition programs are not broken. Is he right?

I think he’s exactly right. We so often focus on the negatives and the challenges. And as he said, there have been a number of those challenges, but sometimes we forget about the successes.

Could the military space acquisition system be improved in any way?

In general, when you look at new program initiation, there are a number of forces at play in determining the early success. Part of it is maturity of technology, part of it is maturity of requirements. Sometimes the Pentagon has not understood — and therefore not communicated to industry — all of its requirements at the start of a space program. And therefore issues come up, and the Pentagon needs to make decisions that add to the cost.

One of the criticisms of the Space Radar program has been that the requirements are not clearly understood, making it difficult to know the true cost of a constellation. I come back and say that is a great reason to have a demonstration — to know more about the cost of the technology, and have some understanding of the concept of operations, which drives the requirements.

Program reserves that could be used to address problems quickly, rather than wait for Congress to reprogram the money, would also help, but that requires a different mindset than is used today on space programs.

What do you tell people in Congress who view cash reserves as an invitation to poor program management?

If it’s managed as a risk reduction fund, and you identify early on — a lot of times you can — what [a program] will cost, what the schedule will be, what the risks will be, you can tie that to real dollars. If you have to change the design, it will take a certain amount of time, and that will likely cost a certain amount of dollars. Some may be high probability, some may be low probability. But if you wanted to add new capability, you would have to request more money.

Do companies shy away from identifying program risks in bid proposals for fear of getting penalized?

If we really identify a lot of risk, we may get labeled as risky and undesirable. If you have an open dialog, and an independent look, you will get more realistic bids. We should then get rated higher for identifying the risk. Maybe this is something for the leadership to think about.

Are you concerned about the current leadership vacuum at the Air Force?

Clearly it concerns me, because the bureaucracy tends to not necessarily move until there are new leaders in place. I’ve never seen so many senior positions open at once. But we still have tremendous leadership from people like Gen. [John] Jumper [chief of staff of the Air Force]. He will be an incredible bridge, and his leadership has been tremendous in recent years. He takes an interest in all programs across the board. So he’s a very good bridge between now and when the new secretary and undersecretary are nominated.

Hopefully they will be appointed and confirmed soon, because once you have a new team in place, they will have to settle in and develop goals and objectives, and we’ll have to make sure we’re aligned with those goals and objectives. Until that happens, the bureaucracy may be stuck a little bit, and things may not move as quickly as we’d like.