The U.S. Air Force’s latest plan for a new generation of futuristic communications satellites appears to have won over key Pentagon oversight panels in the House and Senate, meaning the program could finally be headed toward funding stability.

In its markup of the 2007 defense authorization bill May 4, the Senate Armed Services Committee trimmed $70 million from the Air Force’s $867 million request for the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) system. The reduction was far less drastic than the $200 million cut the committee made last year to the Air Force’s $836 million request.

The Senate action tracks closely with that of the House Armed Services Committee, which one day earlier recommended cutting $80 million from the request. The House and Senate appropriations committees have yet to weigh in with their respective defense spending bills, but they generally follow the recommendations of the armed services panels fairly closely.

The T-Sat satellites, expected to start launching around 2013, will be equipped with laser crosslinks and Internet Protocol-router technology to help satisfy the Pentagon’s growing bandwidth needs. In past years the congressional defense panels have expressed concern that the Air Force was moving out too quickly on the program, and cut its budget accordingly. The current T-Sat budget is $429 million.

In a May 4 news release, the Senate Armed Services Committee said it was “fully supportive” of the Air Force’s latest T-Sat plan, which calls for incremental deployment of the system’s capabilities. But the panel also said the service requested more money than could be spent efficiently in 2007.

The Senate panel still has reservations about the Air Force’s other top satellite development program, the Space Radar. Saying the Air Force has yet to satisfactorily provide key program details such as cost, the panel cut $66 million from the Air Force’s $266 million request for the satellites.

In its news release, the committee also noted that the Air Force and the intelligence community have yet to work out a cost-sharing agreement on Space Radar, which is designed to track moving ground targets and collect high-resolution imagery.

The House committee cut $30 million from the Air Force’s request for Space Radar, whose current budget is $98 million.

The Senate committee added $25 million to the Air Force’s $36 million request for Operationally Responsive Space, a grouping of efforts to develop small satellites and rockets to respond quickly to emerging military needs. The panel followed the House lead in calling for a new program office to manage those efforts.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill authorizes the Pentagon’s full $9.3 billion request for Missile Defense Agency (MDA) programs, and like the House measure — which recommends reducing that total by $184 million — shifts funding from long-term development efforts to those offering more immediate payoffs.

The biggest bill payer for what the news release characterized as “more urgent missile defense requirements” was the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, whose request of $405 million was cut by $200 million. The House bill trimmed $100 million from the request.

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor, under development by Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., is a high-speed rocket that would knock down enemy missiles shortly after takeoff. The MDA will decide whether to deploy the system after a planned 2008 flight test.

The Senate committee added $200 million to MDA’s $2.8 billion request for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System to cover additional flight testing, test missiles and other work. The House had added $20 million to the program for additional ground testing.

The current budget for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System, whose development is led by Chicago-based Boeing Co., is $4.4 billion.

Both the House and Senate bills added $100 million to the MDA’s $1.03 billion request for the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md. The Senate panel said the additional funding would go toward system improvements and the purchase of additional Standard Missile-3 interceptors, which are built by Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass.

The current budget for the sea-based missile defense work is $915 million.

The news release also indicated that the Senate committee called for annual reports from the Pentagon on how it will transfer programs from the MDA, which is responsible for development, to the military services, who will handle long-term procurement and operation.

Speaking with reporters in a conference call about the House markup May 4, Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s former top weapons tester and a frequent critic of missile defense efforts, praised some elements of the House bill. He said shifting funds to more mature programs makes sense, and that the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System would benefit from additional testing.

Coyle, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here, also said he was glad to see the House put a higher priority on the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, which he noted has performed better than the Ground Based Midcourse System in flight tests.

However, Coyle added that the MDA’s budget in general is out of proportion given the threats faced by U.S. troops in harm’s way. “As we all know, missile defense does not work against improvised explosive devices or rocket propelled grenades, which are the tragically real threats affecting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Coyle said.