COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Air Force has started gathering imagery with TacSat-2, the first in a planned series of spacecraft intended to demonstrate the ability to deploy tactically responsive space-based capabilities on short notice, according to a senior service official.
But Ronald Sega, undersecretary of the Air Force, deferred to U.S. Strategic Command all questions regarding the timetable to begin using a signals-intelligence payload aboard TacSat-2. Sega spoke during a briefing for reporters here at the 23rd National Space Symposium April 10.
The Air Force launched TacSat-2, which features a platform built by Microsat Systems of Littleton, Colo., aboard a Minotaur rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., from Wallops Island in December. The service had hoped to begin using both the imaging and signals-intelligence payloads shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit.
However, those instruments have been caught up in a debate between the military and the intelligence community over tasking authority . In a March 26 memo, Thomas Behling, deputy undersecretary of defense for preparation and warning, said the director of the National Security Agency should have tasking authority over TacSat-2’s signals-intelligence payload.
During a panel discussion at the conference later on April 10, Josh Hartman, a minority staff member to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said questions over TacSat-2 tasking authority should have been resolved well before the satellite’s launch.
Hartman, who has been a vocal advocate for the TacSat program, said he hoped to see a resolution soon to allow the Air Force to begin using the signals-intelligence payload. Hartman added that he and Adam Harris, his Democratic counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, would intervene if necessary.
Asked whether similar delays might be in store for the planned TacSat-1 and TacSat-3 satellites, Sega deferred to Strategic Command.
In a March 30 memo to Behling, John Kubricky, deputy undersecretary of defense for advanced systems and concepts, said specific criteria are needed for determining whether satellites should be subject to intelligence community oversight. “With TacSat-1 scheduled to launch this summer and a host of technologies beyond the TacSat series on the way to operations, q uantifying the criteria for [intelligence oversight] would be extremely helpful,” Kubricky wrote.
Sega said that despite the delays affecting the TacSat-2 sensors, the service is very pleased with what it has seen from the satellite thus far.
TacSat-2 features 11 other experimental payloads that have not been affected by the dispute because they do not have intelligence-related missions.
Due primarily to launch-vehicle related delays with TacSat-1 , TacSat-2 was the first of the series to reach orbit. Sega said he was pleased to see that the spacecraft has generally functioned well since launching, despite some issues with the initial checkout where the service lost contact with the satellite for more than a day, and some hiccups that have occurred since .
The TacSat-2 policy debate caused the Air Force to miss a self-imposed March 30 deadline for clearing the satellite to participate in Talisman Saber , a biannual joint U.S.-Australian military exercise, according to a Pentagon source. However, the sensors are not slated to be used in the exercise until late June, the source said. Troops are planning to send commands to the satellite during a scripted part of the exercise in mid May, but data would not actually be collected, the source said.