BOSTON — If 2005 was the year that the U.S. Congress lost patience with cost growth and schedule delays on military space programs, experts say 2006 may be remembered as the year the Pentagon turned the corner.
James Lewis, a senior fellow and director of technology and public policy programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. Air Force was facing a “self-inflicted space Pearl Harbor” in the form of a portfolio of troubled programs.
But the service appears to have steadied the ship on its most notoriously troubled program, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites. Meanwhile, the service’s back-to-basics approach in space acquisition has raised hopes for success on challenging new programs like the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system.
Defense experts and congressional aides are in general agreement that the back-to-basics approach, which entails deploying new capabilities and technologies in an incremental fashion, is the right way ahead. The strategy, which also emphasizes more intensive systems engineering in the early stages of space programs, was instituted in late 2005 by Air Force Undersecretary Ronald Sega .
Congress has repeatedly slashed the Air Force’s funding requests for T-Sat out of concern that the Air Force was trying to do too much too quickly on the program, which is intended to dramatically increase the bandwidth available to U.S. forces.
In the Air Force’s 2007 budget, however, lawmakers trimmed just $130 million from the $867 million request for T-Sat . It is a reflection of a view among congressional staffers that the Air Force is doing a better job of managing risk and tempering ambitions on the most challenging T-Sat program components — the laser-optical payloads and Internet Protocol routers.
Under the service’s latest program plan, the first two T-Sat satellites will have the laser and router systems, but they will be less capable than the ones on subsequent spacecraft. The Air Force plans to award the prime contract to build the T-Sat satellites to eitherof Sunnyvale, Calif., or Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis in late 2007. The satellites are expected to begin launching around the middle of next decade.
The Air Force also has had good news of late on the SBIRS program, which was restructured in December 2005 due to continued soaring cost growth. Kenneth Krieg, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, scaled back the planned purchase of dedicated SBIRS satellites from five to no more than three, and directed the Air Force to begin work on an alternative missile warning system .
The service reported Nov. 17 that the first SBIRS sensor, which is hosted by a classified satellite in a highly elliptical orbit, has performed well thus far during on-orbit checkout. That, along with progress made on the dedicated satellites intended for geosynchronous orbit, has increased the likelihood that the Air Force will purchase additional SBIRS satellites.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, recently raised the possibility that the service will buy all five SBIRS satellites as originally planned.
Loren Thompson, a defense insider and chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, said it is his understanding that the Air Force’s 2008 budget request will include funds for a third geosynchronous SBIRS satellite as well as additional elliptical-orbit sensors.
However, the Air Force also moved ahead in 2006 on the Alternate Infrared Satellite System, awarding contracts to divisions of Raytheon and SAIC for sensor development, and Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics units for spacecraft design work.
While acknowledging the Air Force’s progress in the last year, congressional aides said they still want to see the service beef up its space science and technology efforts. While reducing risk on acquisition programs is a key part of getting back to basics, Sega said the flip side is taking more risk on experimental efforts, where failures will not materially affect the military’s ability to do its job.
Aides said they also are waiting to see the Air Force fulfill a pledge to budget its programs at an 80 percent confidence level, meaning there is an 80 percent likelihood that a program will come in on budget . While Air Force officials have paid lip service to the 80 percent goal in the wake of the recommendations of an expert panel on space acquisition led by former Martin Marietta President A. Thomas Young, the 50 percent confidence level still seems to be the standard, the aides said.
Other key issues to watch in 2007 include space advocacy in the post-Donald Rumsfeld era. Rumsfeld, who resigned as defense secretary effective Dec. 18 , raised the profile of space upon his arrival in 2000 due to his role as chairman of a commission tasked by Congress to review U.S. military space management. But planning and executing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soon consumed his energies, leaving little time to devote to space issues.
However, Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and a close Rumsfeld advisor, took a special interest in space issues and advocated hard for programs like the Space Radar, according to a former senior Defense Department official. Cambone is resigning his post effective Dec. 31.
Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, has yet to indicate a strong interest in space or name a deputy for any post who would approach the issue with the same enthusiasm as Cambone, the former official said. That could leave a significant void in space advocacy at the Pentagon, the official said.
Another area of uncertainty with regard to space advocacy is the incoming Congress. For example, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who was a vocal supporter of space programs as the ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, will not become chairman of that panel when the Democrats take control of the House. He is slated instead to become chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence .
The incoming chairwoman of the strategic forces panel, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), has not been closely involved with space issues to date, according to the former senior Defense Department official.
On the other hand, Reyes’ ascent to the chairmanship of the intelligence committee could help bring the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) closer together, the former official said. Reyes expressed frustration during a June interview that the NRO had yet to contribute its share of funding to the Space Radar , which is expected to support both tactical forces in the field as well as the strategic and intelligence community. Senior U.S. national security officials have said the 2008 budget request will reflect a change in that regard.
Reyes may be able to help heal some of the fissures in the NRO-Air Force relationship resulting from the 2005 decision to separate the positions of NRO director and Air Force undersecretary, the former Defense Department official said.
Another question mark for next year is whether the Air Force will win back full control of its space acquisition programs. Milestone decision authority for several programs was taken away from the Air Force in March 2005 by Michael Wynne, who at the time was serving as the Pentagon’s interim acquisition czar. That authority was restored for all but the space programs in January 2006. The former Defense Department official characterized that exclusion as a slap in the face of the Air Force’s space leadership .