Thompson: TSAT Could Disappear
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.
Via Satellite: What program looks to be in the most trouble?
Thompson: I think there’s a real possibility that TSAT is simply going to disappear. When you see a program lose 40 percent of its funding in a single year and initial deployment flip to over a decade in the future, it has to make you doubtful about the political survivability of the effort.
Last fall, I was sitting in a meeting with some Air Force officers and we were talking about the tougher budget environment and the tradeoffs that would have to be made. Someone immediately volunteered TSAT. In the context of the meeting I should have realized that what I was hearing was that satellite communications just doesn’t matter as much to the Air Force as replacing its fighters.
Via Satellite: You have said that negative comments being made about the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program are worrisome. Can you expand on this?
Thompson: The Future Combat Systems was conceived as the most ambitions modernization of Army equipment in two generations. It is really expensive and really challenging. But one of the places the Army has failed to explain it well is by telling Congress how much it would cost not to build the program. In other words, we can’t stand still. If we don’t do FCS we have to do something else. Something else could be a lot more costly than FCS. The Army projects that cost over the next 25 years is approximately 4 percent of its budget. If it really delivers leap-ahead [technology], then that’s a bargain, but if it doesn’t, we need to understand what other costs we’ll incur to keep our forces survivable.
I think the Army has done a godawful job of explaining FCS to the world. It’s really a pretty simple idea, you need vehicles that are more survivable, deployable and maintainable, and you need a network to connect them together. Why the Army can’t tell that story is one of the great mysteries of modern American life.
Via Satellite: What do you think will be the ultimate result of a ranking of programs?
Thompson: I can tell you what it’s going to mean for many warfighters. 20 years from now they aren’t going to be able to communicate when they’re on the move, and in some of the most stressful parts of their operational existence they’re going to be out of touch with higher command. There were some very special things that TSAT was going to do for warfighters that we already need today. If TSAT slips toward the horizon or disappears entirely we’re going to see warfighters killed because of lack of connectivity. In an era of fast-paced warfare, the notion that you can’t communicate unless you stop the tanks sounds a bit antiquated.
Via Satellite: The Departments of Commerce and State recently released fact sheets about the export control changes outlined by President Bush. How will this affect the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regulations?
Thompson: Our export control policies are major impediment to maintaining dominance of the global satellite market. We’re going to have to take some chances in terms of security if we want to avoid seeing other countries steal our franchises. Philosophically, I believe that the State and Defense too often err on the side of caution in sharing dual-use technologies. I think there should be a higher threshold for proving military harm before we block the export of dual-use technologies.
Via Satellite: Do you think the Chinese anti-satellite test in January 2007 should be taken as a warning to American satellites?
Thompson: I do not see recent Chinese ASAT test as presenting a major danger to geostationary satellites such as early warning and communication spacecraft. The Chinese ASAT threat is principally against low-Earth orbit reconnaissance satellites, especially our imaging reconnaissance satellites. There the Air Force is already pursuing a backup option which would be a hypersonic plane equipped with sensors that could quickly take the place of satellites.
Via Satellite: Do you expect other nations such as China to invest aggressively in improving their military space capabilities?
Thompson: I think that the Chinese and the Indians are making great strides in terms of developing a cheap and fairly reliable launch capability and fielding satellite communications that can suit the needs of emerging countries. [But] let’s be realistic about the difference between their needs and ours. The entire Internet capability of the African continent is equivalent to roughly one block in midtown Manhattan. So what for them is great strides forward in terms of capability would be for us be great strides backwards.
I don’t think China can really have control of its airspace and the oceans unless it fields a much greater space-based communication and reconnaissance capability. I did a study seven years ago about survivability of American aircraft carriers. Just to find carriers in the South China Sea would need over 100 satellites in three parallel polar orbits. Otherwise they just wouldn’t have the ability to continuously track us with targetable intelligence. They are a long way from having the satellite capability that they need. We don’t really need to worry a lot until China develops the capacity to find and track them continuously. As of today they simply don’t have anything like the space capability they would need to do anything like that.
Via Satellite: How will the investment in space by other countries affect the United States?
Thompson: I don’t think we’re in any danger of being left behind by the space capability of other countries, but I do think we’re in danger of not providing our forces with sufficient communications so they can cope with the fact that most of the time they’ll be in hostile territory facing numerically greater enemies. We’re not trying to have a fair fight. We’re trying to be superior because we know that most of time we’re going to be fighting in their country not ours.
Via Satellite: What can the U.S. government and the military do to ensure either control of space or an equal part in the determination of space?
Thompson: There are many ways in which access to space can be denied. You can use an ASAT capability, or you can jam signals or destroy infrastructure on the ground such as launch infrastructure. I think for the time being America’s use of space is not in any way challenged and that concerns about the weaponization of space are premature given the very modest funding that’s going into such activities. I think that the scale and momentum of the U.S. military space effort is so imposing that few countries would be inclined to even try challenging us in space. The only option that really exists for the Russians or Chinese that could substantially degrade our satellites is if they used nuclear weapons in space. But that would degrade their satellites, too.