Northrop Grumman Leading Charge for Space Radar Demo

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Northrop Grumman Corp. is a major driving force behind the Pentagon’s proposed Space Radar demonstration mission, going so far as to issue a request for information from companies interested in building the spacecraft.

Six companies submitted spacecraft designs in response to the request, according to Taylor Lawrence, a sector vice president for command and control and space systems at Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Linthicum, Md., just outside Baltimore. All of the designs were suitable for the proposed 2008 demonstration, he said.

The companies that offered spacecraft designs were: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo.; Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.; Swales Aerospace of Beltsville, Md.; General Dynamics’ Spectrum Astro Space Systems of Gilbert, Ariz.; Microsat Systems of Littleton, Colo.; and Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif.

Northrop Grumman hopes to be awarded a contract within the next few months to manage the demonstration, and in that capacity would pick spacecraft builder, Lawrence said. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems would build the radar sensor, he said.

That scenario is consistent with what Air Force officials said when they first unveiled plans for the demonstration mission in late January.

The Space Radar is a proposed constellation of radar satellites that would be operated jointly by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. It would collect high-resolution imagery, primarily for the intelligence community, and detect movement on the ground in support of military operations.

Congress slashed the Air Force’s funding request for the program in the 2005 defense spending bill and ordered the service to focus on research and development rather than launching a very expensive constellation that lawmakers said was of questionable military utility. But the Air Force has refused to give up on the system, and in its 2006 budget request added a new twist: a two-satellite demonstration that would be launched in 2008.

That idea actually came from Northrop Grumman, Lawrence said and sources have confirmed. Lawrence said the company originally proposed it as the third mission under the Defense Department’s TacSat program, a series of experiments designed to show how satellites can be responsive to the immediate needs of military forces.

Lawrence said Northrop Grumman saw another opportunity for its demonstration proposal after Congress squashed plans for an operational satellite radar in the 2005 budget bill.

The Space Radar demonstration is reminiscent of Discoverer-2, a proposed satellite radar experiment that Congress terminated in 2000. Lawrence had championed that effort as a staffer with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and it did not survive his departure for industry.

Like Discoverer-2, the 2008 demonstration is designed to prove to skeptical lawmakers that the Space Radar concept is feasible, but it could be doomed to the same fate. Some congressional staffers with longstanding concerns about the utility and cost of the Space Radar are equally skeptical of the demonstration.

Lawrence declined to comment on the estimated cost of the demonstration, which would involve two quarter-scale satellites. He said the experiment would give the Pentagon and Congress a better idea of what the operational system will cost.

Despite the experimental nature of the demonstration, the satellites would have an image gathering capability that could be of some operational use, Lawrence said. The moving-target-detection aspect would be largely scripted, and thus of little operational utility, given the limits of a two-satellite system, he said.

Data from the demonstration would be made freely available to the companies that will compete to build the operational constellation, Lawrence said. He conceded, however, that not all the likely competitors share his enthusiasm for the experiment.

Lining up for a possible competition to build an operational Space Radar are teams led by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems is the preferred radar instrument supplier for both teams.

Northrop Grumman Space Technology says it is not opposed to the demonstration. “Our team works closely with the Air Force and naturally will do everything possible to support its demonstration objectives and acquisition approach once they become more fully defined,” said Bob Bishop, a company spokesman.

Joan Underwood, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

Another issue the proposed Space Radar faces is that it has lost its strongest advocate in Peter B. Teets, who retired from the Air Force in March. He had been serving as the Air Force’s acting secretary, confirmed undersecretary, and as director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

However, Northrop Grumman believes it can count on Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper to champion to the program in Teets’ absence, Lawrence said. Maj. Kim Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Jumper, said the general is an advocate for the program, and will continue to support it.