policies governing remote sensing, launch vehicles and hardware acquisition are among the key national security space issues U.S. President-elect BarackObama will face during the early years of his administration, according to several experts here.
The incoming president inherits a military space acquisition system that many describe as dysfunctional, a commercial satellite imagery policy that has been challenged by the affected agencies, and a strategy for maintaining so-called assured access to space that is set to be reviewed in 2010. Military space received very little, if any, attention during the campaign, but experts say this is not for a lack of issues that will need to be addressed.
Among the first of these is the Commercial Remote Sensing Policy signed in April 2003 by current U.S. President George W. Bush. The policy, among other things, requires government agencies to rely to the maximum practical extent on private satellite operators to meet their imagery and geospatial intelligence needs.
The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency successfully applied this model by subsidizing new imagery satellites built by two companies, of Longmont, Colo., and of Dulles, The agency is the anchor customer for data from those satellites, both of which are in orbit.
Last year, however, the Pentagon and intelligence community moved ahead on a joint program to build and launch up to two satellites that would have capabilities comparable to the DigitalGlobe and GeoEye craft. The so-called Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collector (BASIC) quickly became mired in controversy, however, in part over questions about its compliance with remote sensing policy.
“The BASIC program ran counter to that policy,” U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), chairman of the House Intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence, told reporters in November. Ruppersberger’s panel in October released a report that recommends, among other things, that the remote sensing policy be strengthened or clarified.
A congressional source said some action must be taken in 2009 to head off a future gap in overhead collection capabilities. The options are essentially to revise the policy to give government agencies more flexibility to choose when to rely on commercial capabilities, or continue the partnership with commercial vendors and get them started on the next generation of imaging satellites, the source said.
space transportation policy, meanwhile, already has a place on the incoming administration’s calendar by virtue of the fact that the existing guidance calls for a revisit of one of its key provisions by the end of 2010. At issue is whether the U.S. Air Force should continue to maintain two separate families of launch vehicles with comparable capabilities. The general idea is to ensure that the always has the ability to launch critical national security and scientific payloads even if one family of vehicles is grounded by failure or other technical problems.
The problem with the so-called assured access policy is that it is very expensive, a situation exacerbated by the fact that government demand for satellite launches is not sufficient to keep two vehicle assembly lines operating at economically efficient rates. Meanwhile, the policy has not ensured timely access to space for the government: Both the Atlas 5 and4 rocket families were grounded throughout much of last year, conducting only one launch on behalf of the government.
Complicating the matter further is the fact that the Atlas 5 has a Russian-built main engine, and relations between and have chilled in recent years. Meanwhile, space industry insiders believe the Obama administration will direct NASA to cancel plans to develop a new rocket to launch its planned crew-carrying Orion capsule and rely instead on a modified variant of Atlas 5 or Delta 4, both of which were developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow of foreign policy with the Brookings Institution, a thinktank here, said while the incoming administration has given no signals as to its thinking on the matter, assured access fits the mold of a policy that could be modified to save money.
“Things that cost extra and don’t really push the state-of-the-art in technology are more likely to be expendable,” O’Hanlon said. “The idea of a two-launcher capability might fit into that category.”
The Obama administration also is being urged to tackle the broad acquisition, organization and management problems that have plagued the military and intelligence space enterprise in recent years. These issues were the subject of a pair of reports that came out last year, one prepared by Ruppersberger’s subcommittee and the other by a congressionally mandated panel of outside experts. The latter group, named after now-retired U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who called for the study, found dispersed authority for military and intelligence space programs and a lack of an overarching national strategy for space. The panel recommended the creation of a single organization with a single leader responsible for both classified and unclassified space systems and the development of a national space strategy.
The report by Ruppersberger’s subcommittee reached similar conclusions about the state of affairs in national security space but stopped short of endorsing the sweeping changes recommended by the Allard Commission.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson, now working for the Booz Allen Hamilton consultancy here and a member of the Allard Commission, said national security space management issues likely will sit on the back burner for awhile barring some catalyst for change.
“My own belief is these things will not be addressed in the first year because there are too many bigger problems that have to be addressed including and the economy,” Anderson, a former commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said. “But the other player here is Congress, which legislated the creation of my panel’s report to begin with.”
And while most would acknowledge there are problems with the space management structure, not everyone agrees on how best to fix them. Bob Butterworth, president of the space consultancy Aries Analytics of Alexandria, Va., said these problems exist separately in both the classified and unclassified realms, and combining their organizations does not fix anything. Rather, the government’s efforts must focus on getting back the systems engineering and program management skills these organizations had before these functions were largely handed over to contractors in the 1990s.