Quiet Oversight of U.S. Military Space

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Profile: U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee

Congress has taken heat in recent years from missile defense critics who charge that the Republican majority has abdicated its oversight of that activity.

Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) rejects that charge, noting that as chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, he has pushed to include funding in 2006 for an additional test of the Pentagon’s Ground Based Midcourse Defense System, which had back-to-back test failures in which the interceptor could not get off the ground.

Everett describes himself as enthusiastic about systems like the Airborne Laser, a modified Boeing 747 aircraft equipped with a chemical laser to destroy ballistic missiles as they lift off , but said he is unwilling to allow schedules to drive progress on complex technology-development efforts.

“People need to know that we do a lot of oversight; we hold a lot of hearings, and get a lot of briefings, many of them classified,” Everett said. “We do the job kind of quietly, but we do the job.”

Everett notes that his subcommittee also has kept close tabs on U.S. Air Force space acquisition programs, putting the brakes this year on two major satellite development efforts — the Space Radar and Transformational Satellite Communications, or T-Sat, programs — in order to head off the cost-growth problems that have plagued the rest of the service’s space portfolio.

Also high on Everett’s agenda is protecting U.S. satellites and ensuring that adversaries do not use spacecraft to threaten U.S. forces.

Everett spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

The U.S. national missile shield was expected to enter service late last year, but the Pentagon missed that deadline and has yet to set a new one. Does that bother you?

It bothers me a great deal.

One of the things that concerns me is that some of the stuff is so basic, like the latch not releasing. Why didn’t we know that the latch arm wouldn’t release to allow the interceptor to launch? Why wasn’t that tested? Why didn’t they realize that the corrosion could cause this to happen?

If you’re an engineer, dealing with metal, that would be something that you should know and anticipate. That bothers me when such simple things cause a flight to be canceled.

I’m also a little puzzled about the software situation. In the conversations that I’ve had with the Missile Defense Agency, they tell me that the software has been tested around 50 times and it works. And then the next time it doesn’t work. Those are the little things. It’s not like they’re exploding in the silos. It has not only caused me concern, but a lot of the members of Congress who support missile defense are concerned with the failures in these tests.

What was your reaction to the comment made in April by Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, that space acquisition is not broken, and that those who think otherwise should “get over it?”

Gen. Lord is a brilliant space person. From time to time, all of us, including myself, make statements that if we reconsidered, we wouldn’t make.

Is the U.S. military space acquisition system in fact broken?

The TacSat effort to develop smaller, less expensive satellites that can launch on short notice is the best thing we have going for us in space right now. If we had TacSats available today, they might be useful to follow insurgents in Iraq.

However, the majority of the space portfolio, including the Space Radar and T-Sat, are problematic and started with unrealistic cost estimates, unconstrained requirements and immature technology. There is no question in my mind that Space Radar is a needed program. We have to have Space Radar. But Space Radar, T-Sat, all this stuff, we’re going to have to re-evaluate how we’re trying to run it.

When do you expect to begin the hearings and briefings on space control that you have talked about?

The subcommittee had a classified briefing from Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officials on the threats we face May 4. We’ll probably have other closed hearings, but that won’t preclude us from having open hearings.

We plan to conduct an open hearing on space control policy, and are attempting to wait until the White House releases its new national space policy. But if the release of that policy continues to be delayed, the subcommittee will be forced to hold the hearing without the document in hand.

This is something I decided to do last year. We have never had a national discussion on space control.

Did the classified briefing change your views?

It reinforced my views about the vulnerability of U.S. satellites and the need to protect them.

What happens if our military went blind or lost access to GPS? If we lost these assets, it would damage our military and have a huge, maybe even a devastating, impact on our economy.

There are environmental concerns too. Using GPS in precision farming, we’ve been able to use less pesticide and fertilizer, which minimizes runoff that can be damaging to our environment.

Are offensive systems needed either to protect U.S. satellites or prevent enemies from using space against U.S. forces?

This will be a topic of our hearings.

We want to look at the whole spectrum of options out there. I’m not saying “Let’s go and blow it up.” We’ve had some pretty good responses from the critics of weaponizing space that would like to be a part of these hearings, and we’ll make them a part of these hearings.

That doesn’t mean that they have to agree with us about the outcome, or we have to agree with them about the outcome, but we need to get a consensus in Congress about how important satellites are to our military and the economy in general, and what happens if we lose them.

Do you agree with those who say space weapons will create debris that could make Earth orbit uninhabitable for satellites?

The creation of space debris is problematic. This topic will be explored during our hearings.

There has been an awful lot of speculation on what the Air Force is doing, and what the administration is going to do. And that speculation is not necessarily true. I can understand how people who are critics or people who want space to remain a sanctuary perhaps have gotten out in front of what is really happening in an effort to build support for their positions or an effort — and we’ve talked to some of them — to make sure we do have this national discussion.

What concerns you about the recent decision to separate the jobs of Air Force undersecretary and National Reconnaissance Office director?

I would hate to see some pull-back in the merging of black and white space. It’s pretty obvious to me, as a member of the House intel committee and the Armed Services Committee, that everybody likes having their own stuff, whether you are talking about tanks, helicopters or fighter jets. Everybody wants their own stuff, and it’s true of the intel community, but we can’t afford to give everybody their own stuff. We’re going to have to learn to share.

We cannot afford to have the same capability or near capability for two separate outfits.