The unveiling of the Air Force budget request for fiscal year 2009 revealed that the service has cut funding to some programs such as the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) while increasing funding for programs like the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) more than 300 percent.
Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., shares his thoughts on the future of the military space program and the role other countries may play in the market.
Via Satellite: What’s your take on the Air Force budget request?Thompson
: I’ve talked to senior people in the Air Force and they believe they’re in fairly good shape in this budget compared with previous years. A cynic might say that their expectations are so low that the fact that major programs are underfunded no longer bothers them as much as it once did. Most of their space and aircraft programs are funded to the levels they thought necessary to keep them on track. I would say there are at least three programs where big question marks hang over the Air Force’s future.
The most important program is the TSAT program, which was going to be the hub of joint communications architecture in the future. That program has been cut by about 40 percent across the board from 2009 to 2013. In fact, it’s been cut so much that this might be the beginning of the end, and I think that’s kind of a tragedy.
The Air Force and Defense Department have made a decision that they are going to go forward with buying another geosynchronous satellite for the SBIRS constellation and are not going to be funding alternatives to the early warning system. There had been a proposal that because of delays, the department should develop alternatives such as the Alternate Infrared Satellite System. Those efforts are now falling by the wayside, because it has become apparent that there is simply not enough time to develop alternatives to the sensors that were designed specifically for the SBIRS constellation. I’m not against developing new technologies. The SBIRS suite is not perfect, but we need to be focused first and foremost on maintaining viable missile warning capability and right now SBIRS is the only way in doing that.
Via Satellite: What do you think the military should be focusing on with regards to space?Thompson
: I am a little unsettled by the way in which terrestrial programs seem to crowd out space advancement. It’s abundantly obvious that we’re not going to have a space radar constellation. It’s looking increasingly likely that we’re not going to have a TSAT capability either. Why is that? The biggest single reason why is the Air Force has pressing need to modernize Cold War aircraft. I’m not going to argue that the Air Force doesn’t need to replace their aircraft, but I think we’re losing valuable space capabilities here in the bargain. That’s a bad trade-off.