Congress Short-Changes Space-Based Systems

By | August 2, 2004 | Feature

By Paul Dykewicz, Access Intelligence LLC

The whopping federal budget deficits that the U.S. government has been compiling in large part to fund major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would suggest that important U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) priorities would not be shortchanged. However, a House-Senate conference committee recently agreed to substantial funding cuts for the Navy’s next-generation narrowband satellite communication system.

Amy Butler, a reporter for our sister publication Defense Daily, wrote that lawmakers approved a House proposal to shave $110 million from the Navy’s $573.092 million funding line for satellite communications in FY05. The Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) development is funded through that account, and the program is expected to cost the Pentagon about $6.2 billion during its planned service life.

The MUOS specifically would provide service to what the Pentagon calls “disadvantaged users,” either on the move or under such heavy “clutter” as a jungle canopy or in a mountainous area. The launch of MUOS service was scheduled for 2010 but the cut could postpone that start date by two full years. The MUOS constellation is expected to boost UHF access by 400 percent, and to “more efficiently use” existing spectrum, according to an appeal filed by the DoD.

The Pentagon strongly opposed the proposed cuts, and its views should be given great weight, because it should know its priorities better than Congress. In the DoD’s July 9 appeal, Pentagon officials said the two-year program delay for MUOS potentially would widen an existing gap in ultra-high frequency communications for military users. MUOS spacecraft are intended to replace the Ultra-High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) satellites.

The Pentagon has been advocating the full funding of this program and earlier this year sent Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, to Capitol Hill to explain that Operation Iraqi Freedom demonstrated a clear shortage of UHF communications.

Senators had proposed a slightly smaller cut of $100 million to the MUOS funding than the House’s $110 million reduction that ultimately was adopted by the conference committee. In their conference report, legislators explained that the cut would fund the program in accordance to the estimate put forth by the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group (CAIG). Sources say the CAIG expects an initial operational capability for MUOS in FY11.

It is important for Congress to take its oversight of federal spending seriously, especially during a time when deficits are going wild. The issue is priorities. Space-based war fighting is becoming increasingly important to the DoD, and the views of Pentagon officials should gain considerable clout when the funding of their programs is at stake. The cut shows that lawmakers may lack full appreciation of the value of space-based systems to save the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians by ensuring communications between military personnel are state-of-the-art and robust. Americans almost universally bemoan friendly-fire incidents that cost U.S. lives. A closer look should be given to this matter when funding objectives are established for FY06.

The process of choosing a winning contractor for the MUOS contract already appears to have slowed by the cut. Raytheon [RTN] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] are competing for the MUOS prime contract and those companies had expected a decision on the winner last month. Now, Navy officials are extending the proposal period into the fall. Officials at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command amended the MUOS request for proposals July 1, and they now expect to announce the winner in October.

Federal budget decisions are always difficult, and at least the MUOS program is moving ahead. However, Congress needs to have good reasons for delaying a program as important as MUOS, especially in light of the Pentagon’s growing reliance on space-based systems to meet its increasingly challenging objectives.

Paul Dykewicz is senior editor and senior analyst of Satellite News. He can be reached at 301/354-1769 or at pdykewicz@accessintel.com.

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