Senate Panel Affirms House Cuts to T-Sat, Space Radar

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A 2006 defense spending bill passed Sept. 28 by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee virtually assures that the U.S. Air Force will once again have to rewrite its deployment timetable for two major satellite systems, one for communications and the other for ground surveillance.

The bill’s funding figures for the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system and Space Radar surveillance system track closely with proposed reductions in companion legislation approved by the House of Representatives in June. That leaves little to negotiate concerning those programs when the House and Senate lawmakers meet this autumn to hammer out a final version of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Bill.

And in a reflection of Congress’ mounting frustration with cost growth on U.S. military space programs in general, the report accompanying the Senate bill directs the Air Force to come up with a plan in four months “to improve space acquisition and re-establish the proud legacy of successful satellite development.” The panel “strongly encourages” the Air Force “to continue the implementation of needed changes in space acquisition,” the report said.

The panel recommends cutting $250 million from the Air Force’s $836 million request for the T-Sat effort. On top of that, the committee proposed fencing off $150 million of the remaining money for the possible acquisition of a fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (EHF) satellite, the report said.

The Air Force has indicated that it wants to deploy just three Advanced EHF communications satellites before moving on to the more-capable T-Sat system, but the committee directs the service to take another look at the issue. Should the military decide to build the fourth Advanced EHF satellite, the $150 million would go toward that effort.

As part of its study, the Air Force should consider “advanced capabilities” that could be incorporated on a fourth Advanced EHF satellite, the report said. Air Force and industry officials have raised the possibility of introducing T-Sat capabilities incrementally through the predecessor program.

The “committee encourages the Defense Department to pursue this policy … if the study findings support this approach,” the report said. The service also should evaluate whether it might need additional Advanced EHF satellites beyond the fourth, the report said.

The House version of the defense spending bill would trim $400 million from the Air Force’s request for T-Sat next year. In a report accompanying its version of the bill, the House recommended that the Air Force consider alternatives to the current schedule for fielding T-Sat that included slowing the pace of development while launching upgraded versions of the Advanced EHF and Wideband Gapfiller satellites.

One source close to the T-Sat program said the first launch of those satellites, currently scheduled for 2013, likely will slip about eight months into 2014 as a result of the congressional actions. That assumes the program will receive full funding in future years, a prospect that seems unlikely given the skepticism among lawmakers about the readiness of the technology. T-Sat would be delayed further if Congress ultimately compels the Air Force to buy the fourth Advanced EHF satellite in the final version of the appropriations bill, the source said.

Meanwhile, the Senate panel echoed the House bill by cutting $126 million from the Pentagon’s $226 million request for the Space Radar. The Senate report said “the current [cost] projections based on a large constellation are very high and bring into question the program’s affordability.”

The Pentagon wants the Space Radar satellites to provide high-resolution imagery and surveillance of moving ground targets regardless of time of day or weather. The Air Force had hoped to begin launching those satellites around 2015, and conduct a small-scale space demonstration in 2008, but those plans are in jeopardy.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has yet to publish an official response to the Senate bill. However, following passage of the House version, the budget office said the proposed reductions to T-Sat and Space Radar, along with those on several other programs, would cause significant delays or cancellations.

Pentagon officials have discussed the possibility of keeping the T-Sat and Space Radar programs on track next year with money diverted from other programs, but that possibility is considered a long shot, sources said.

The Senate bill also trimmed $100 million from the Air Force’s $757 million request for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning system . Citing the program’s significant cost growth in the last year, the panel directed the Air Force to provide a new cost estimate and “implement any needed management changes….”

Air Force officials already are reviewing alternatives to the missile warning system as required by law in cases where Pentagon programs exceed the 25-percent cost growth threshold.

The House did not reduce the SBIRS funding request for 2006. If the Senate reduction stands , it would cause significant disruption to the program and drive the cost up even higher, according to a Pentagon source.

The Senate report also expressed concern about the lack of competition for Pentagon launch vehicle contracts.

The Air Force plans to split roughly evenly its next round of satellite launch contracts between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. in order to keep both companies in the launch business. In addition, the companies are seeking U.S. government permission to combine their rocket manufacturing operations.

“Thus, the Committee directs that launch services contracts provide an annual opportunity for companies to present their qualifications and compete for launch services,” the Senate report said.

By COLIN CLARK & JEREMY SINGER