U.S. House Panel Not Sold on Missile Tracking Constellation

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Armed Services Committee has recommended putting the brakes once again on the Pentagon’s long-deferred plans to develop a constellation of missile tracking satellites.

In marking up the 2013 defense authorization bill, the committee recommended providing $50 million for the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS), a constellation of low-orbiting satellites that would track ballistic missiles as they coast through space. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) requested $297.4 million for the program, which has struggled to win congressional support since it was proposed a few years ago.

The full committee markup of the bill began May 9 and concluded the next morning when the panel voted to approve the bill, which sets overall program spending limits and provides policy direction to the Department of Defense. It followed two earlier markups affecting space- and missile-related programs: one by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), that slashed the funding request for PTSS, and one by the strategic forces subcommittee.

The full House is expected to vote on the bill during the week of May 16.

The strategic forces subcommittee, in its April 26 markup, called for withholding PTSS funds pending award of a contract for an independent analysis of alternatives for the missile tracking mission. In report language accompanying its proposed bill, the strategic forces panel specified that the analysis be conducted by a federally funded research and development center with no prior involvement in the PTSS program.

That language would appear to rule out the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., a not-for-profit institution that does research and builds hardware for U.S. government agencies. The laboratory holds the contract to develop a prototype PTSS satellite.

The analysis of alternatives would be led by a panel appointed by the selected research center, the subcommittee said. PTSS funds could be used only for development purposes up until 60 days after the study is delivered to the congressional defense oversight committees.

The analysis would provide the lowest-cost option for a 10-year program aimed at improving U.S. territorial missile defenses using land-, air- or space-based sensors, or some combination of the three, the subcommittee said. The report should provide details of MDA plans for the PTSS constellation including its size, acquisition risks and costs, the subcommittee said.

The subcommittee cited concerns voiced by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that a “true analysis of alternatives was never conducted” for PTSS.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, director of the MDA, said in March that the PTSS system will spend the majority of its time performing functions unrelated to missile defense, such as space situational awareness, the subcommittee noted.

“The committee believes that a system that will spend most of its time doing a mission other than homeland missile defense, in this case, the space situational awareness mission, should be more directly designed for its primary mission, and that the MDA should not be entirely responsible for the cost of this system,” the subcommittee’s report states.

Congress allocated $80.7 million for PTSS in 2012, or about half of what the MDA had requested.

Meanwhile, the full committee recommended providing $44.9 million next year for the long-running Space Test Program, which the U.S. Air Force has marked for termination next year.

The Air Force requested $10 million next year to close out the program, which for some four decades has been used to find rides to space for promising Pentagon experiments.

The committee also concurred with the strategic forces subcommittee recommendation to provide $25 million next year for the Operationally Responsive Space Office, which the Air Force has marked for closure next year.

In other notable actions, the full committee also:

  • Approved an amendment that would prohibit the use of Pentagon funds for implementing a code of conduct for space activities that has not been approved by the Senate or “authorized by statute.”

The amendment also calls for the secretaries of state and defense to submit to Congress a report on the progress of negotiations on an international agreement involving space activities within 90 days of the final approval of the law.

  • Defeated an amendment to strike a provision from the draft bill requiring the MDA director to evaluate placing a large X-band radar, currently located at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, on the East Coast. The radar was originally intended for deployment in Europe under a plan that has since been scrapped.
  • Defeated an amendment that would have eliminated a provision requiring the secretary of defense to submit plans for cost sharing with NATO on the MDA’s Phased Adaptive Approach for European defense. Draft bill language also would fence off 25 percent of MDA funding for fixed assets to be used for the European defense shield pending NATO’s response to a U.S. request for a “pre-financing” agreement.