“We are trying to regroup a bit,” said Air Force Undersecretary Peter Teets, who oversees the service’s entire portfolio of space programs.
A constellation of space-based radars able to track moving targets and provide maps and imagery would be a useful capability for U.S. military forces and for the intelligence community, Teets argues, although he concedes that the Defense Department has done poorly so far articulating the merits of the program.
Teets said he was disappointed that the Pentagon’s budget request of $328 million for the space-based radar in fiscal year 2005 was slashed to $75 million.
“We were criticized by Congress for trying to advance technology too fast,” Teets said in an interview.
The Defense Department has programmed about $4 billion for the program from fiscal years 2005 to 2009, with the intent to launch the first satellite by 2012.
Those plans could see significant changes, pending the outcome of an ongoing review of space-based radar requirements and strategy, and the possible revision of Air Force concepts for how to operate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
Teets convened a so-called “tiger team” of military and civilian experts to assess the state of the technology and gauge the level of support for the program within each military service and U.S. intelligence agencies.
The team met in early September and was given a November deadline to turn in final recommendations that could lead to changes in the fiscal year 2006 budget request, which will be sent to Congress in January.
“I’ll hear what they learned,” Teets said. Some time in November, “we’ll put our thinking together on how to properly formulate a plan for the 2006 budget. We’ll build a revised plan that I think makes good sense.”
Leading the tiger team is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Campbell, who, as a former advisor to CIA Director George Tenet, “brings unique credentials,” said Teets.
Teets asked the team to ponder various scenarios and possible alternatives to the current space-based radar concept. Among them would be deploying radars in “near-space” orbits, which range from 65,000 to 300,000 feet above the earth. The concept the Air Force proposed in last year’s budget was a constellation of nine low-orbiting satellites.
“It’s important for us to look at all means to deliver this capability,” said Teets. “Near space will be a potential delivery mechanism that should be considered.”
Any form of space-based radar would have to be viewed as part of a network that includes airborne sensors and other assets, he said.
Teets directed team members to “talk to the war fighters, to people who have expressed a strong desire to have SBR capabilities.” Teets also told them to “talk to the intelligence community, go out and visit industry and get a sense of where the technology is today and how risky the program would be.”
The goal is to articulate an unambiguous message to Congress, he added. The tiger team will revise the SBR concept of operations and “strengthen it, get it more specific, relate it better to the intelligence community than it was last year,” said Teets.
The basic requirements of the program are not likely to change, he said, but “I see a refinement in the concept, how we task and exploit the information to serve war fighting and intelligence operations.”
A revised program strategy, he said, “would be built toward showing the Congress that the technology is mature enough to proceed into full-scale development.”
A cost estimate for the program of $25 billion to $29 billion over 20 years was cited in congressional language, and raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
Teets insisted that those numbers are not accurate. He declined to discuss revised cost estimates for space-based radar, but said that detailed price data would be submitted to Congress with the fiscal year 2006 budget request.
The Air Force is under pressure to make the technology “affordable,” Teets said. “We have to find a way to make our proposed program fit within reasonable budget constraints.”
The lesson from last year’s budget negotiations was that “we were not specific enough in the formulation of the program moving forward to convince the Congress we really had our arms around the total program cost.”
In recent months, he said, “we heard way too many large numbers associated with the cost of space-based radar. It’s incumbent upon us this year to construct a program that will lead to a first flight in five or six years and that can bring great value.”
Program advocates said are hopeful that the revised strategy will help clear ambiguities and address lawmakers’ concerns.
“Policy makers need to get space-based radar back on track—not just by repeating their arguments, but by listening to what the appropriators said in cutting the program,” said Loren B. Thompson, of the Lexington Institute. “Space-based radar shouldn’t be allowed to die, because it is a unique intelligence-gathering tool, well suited to emerging threats.”
Critics, meanwhile, continue to question the value of this expensive technology.
“We are getting ready to spend vast amounts of money on space-based surveillance, and it’s not clear we should do so,” said Owen R. Cote Jr., associate director for national security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Space is not the ideal location to detect targets,” he said. “The orbits that allow you to dwell and persist are close to earth. That means you need about 60 satellites in lower orbit. There are limits to what space can do.”