WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers that oversee defense activities expressed concern during separate hearings March 4 about the impact of the Pentagon’s decision to curtail spending on the Transformational Satellite communications, or T-Sat, program over the next six years.

“The 2009 budget request completely undermines the program, pulling $3.6 billion out of the program through fiscal year 2013 and delay[ing] the first launch to 2018 at the earliest,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which he chairs. “And the requirements for T-Sat haven’t changed, so what’s going on?” 

At this time last year, the U.S. Air Force hoped to begin launching the T-Sat satellites, equipped with laser links and Internet routers to provide U.S. forces with a much-needed boost in bandwidth, in 2016. But the service opted to stretch out the program late last year; the service’s 2009 spending request includes $843 million for T-Sat, $385 million less than what was planned at this time last year, and the six-year spending profile for the program is down nearly $4 billion.

The revised plan was spurred in large part by a congressional directive last year that the Air Force buy a fourth satellite in the preceding series, known as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system. In a related move, lawmakers trimmed more than $150 million from the service’s request for T-Sat in 2008. The Air Force had hoped to deploy three AEHF satellites before moving on to T-Sat.

During a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), that panel’s ranking member, said “more than 200 Army and Marine units will be reliant on unprotected communications, as will all of the Army’s [Future Combat Systems] brigades” because of the revised deployment date for T-Sat. Various unmanned aerial vehicles also will be effected, he said.

“These forces are the most susceptible to jamming,” said Everett, who plans to retire at the end of the current term. “Yet, the department has chosen to cut $4 billion from T-Sat.”

Everett questioned whether the Pentagon places a high-enough priority on secure communications.

Gary Payton, the Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, who testified at both hearings, told the Senate subcommittee that the service plans to “rephrase” T-Sat capabilities so that the system can serve the most important users first.

Payton said a study begun in December of capabilities for the initial block of T-Sat satellites should be completed by spring. “We are not necessarily married to a 2018 launch,” he said, noting that an earlier launch date has not been ruled out.

The Air Force also is considering purchasing more Wideband Global Satcom satellites to meet the military’s future communications needs, Payton said. The Air Force already has launched one of those satellites and plans to field six in total, including one financed by the Australian government.