Key Lawmaker Expresses Concern About Soaring Development Cost Of Military Space Programs

By | March 13, 2006 | Feature, Government

A key House Armed Services Committee (HASC) member is warning contractors to make sure satellite and other space-based technologies are mature before fielding them or risk losing congressional support.

"We’ve got to get control of this," Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic force subcommittee, told sister publication Defense Daily in an interview. "We cannot continue to spend money on space and not get any results."

Everett’s subcommittee oversees military satellites and other space-based systems, missile defense, and the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The committee will hold a hearing March 14 to receive testimony on the U.S. Department of Defense‘s Quadrennial Defense Review and review the military’s proposed space posture for 2007.

The QDR, released in February, reaffirmed the vital contribution of space systems in supporting military operations but calls for the U.S. Air Force to successfully deliver next-generation systems like Transformational Satellite Communications (TSAT) and Space Radar within budget and schedule goals to support future military operations.

Among its mandates, the QDR called for the TSAT program to be restructured so that the satellite network is fielded in lower-risk blocks, with improvements incorporated incrementally. TSAT is designed to provide soldiers on the move, for the first time, with robust Internet-like communications capabilities. The Air Force plans the first launch of a TSAT satellite in fiscal year 2014.

Everett, who has repeatedly criticized schedule delays and cost overruns for several military space programs, believes the military has begun to realize that Congress cannot afford immature systems. "There’s a pot of money and it’s not going to get much bigger. In fact, we might end up losing some," he said.

Everett cited several reasons for the delays and cost overruns including: poor program management by both the military and its contractors, a military penchant for adding requirements to systems as they are being developed, a failure to consider budget and systems engineering issues when systems are first designed and the government’s long-standing practice of awarding work to the lowest bidder.

Everett said the military has consistently shortchanged space acquisition professionals, who manage the multibillion programs, by keeping them in jobs for only a short time and not giving them opportunities for advancement. "We need to make sure we have professionals in charge of these space things, there’s so much money" involved, he said.

Often, Everett said, the military creates cost overruns by adding more than is needed to space systems. For example, he noted, the tactical satellite, proposed as a highly mobile space asset for on-demand use by combatant commanders, was in danger of becoming a large satellite constellation if more requirements are added.

"The problem with taking a good idea and making it better is that escalates the cost," Everett said.

Everett did not just blame the problems on military managers, but said the prime contractors need to keep better tabs on the subcontractors. He noted a satellite manufacturer had seen costs soar because a vendor had a shortage of ball bearings needed for gyroscopes, which have been a staple of space hardware for decades.

Space-based systems were among the areas that lawmakers cut in last year’s defense authorization and spending bills. The Space Based Laser and Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High program were scaled back by lawmakers who raised concerns about rising costs. Everett noted that SBIRS had seen costs more than double from its initial price tag of $3 billion. He said lawmakers would take a look again at cuts to some military space programs, but he also warned against "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

According to Everett, about 40 percent of all business and personal transactions conducted today involve space systems, ranging from companies that rely on satellites for quickly moving money to individuals whose cell phones rely on satellites.

"There are dangerous times and we need a lot of these assets not just from a military but an economic standpoint," he said.

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