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SBR Causes ‘Confusion’ In Congress

By | July 26, 2004

      According to an executive from one of the United States’ top defense contractors, the Pentagon’s failed advocacy for the Space Based Radar (SBR) satellite program on Capitol Hill was due, in part, to confusion surrounding the program, despite claims from Pentagon leaders that SBR would revolutionize how wars are fought and won.

      “Confusion reigned,” George Meullner, Boeing’s [BA] executive vice president for Air Force systems, told sister publication Defense Daily at the Farnborough Air Show last week in the U.K.

      Citing exorbitant costs that could top $60 billion, a House-Senate conference committee slashed the Administration’s request for the SBR, ordering the Air Force to restructure the program.

      Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] each have $220 million concept development contracts for the SBR program. Initial funding worth $30.5 million was allocated to Lockheed Martin, with Northrop Grumman receiving $30 million.

      The massive congressional hit to the SBR program was largely the result of confusion on Capitol Hill over what exactly the Air Force wants to do with the ambitious program, according to some industry officials. Reportedly, the continuing debate over the orbit of the satellite constellation and the lack of program definition became a significant problem for the Hill.

      The demands for persistent surveillance needed for targeting and the high-quality imagery for the intelligence community drove debate over the number of satellites needed and the position of the constellation’s orbit.

      “I think the Hill is still confused as to how that fits into the total package,” Muellner said. “There was clearly some difficulty in trying to get the intelligence community and the operational warfighter to have a common concept of operations.”

      According to Muellner, what is happening with SBR is a repetition of Discoverer II, the on-orbit SBR demonstration deleted few years ago by the same committee that is leading the charge to diffuse SBR.

      With SBR, the Pentagon never fully explained how it would meet the military’s targeting requirements and satisfy the intelligence community’s desire for high-quality imagery. At issue were continuing debates over whether to have the satellite constellation in medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is better for targeting, or in low Earth orbit (LEO), which would have been preferred for imagery. Outcome of that debate would also drive the size of the constellation; satellites in lower orbits must be bought at higher rates to provide equal coverage to fewer satellites orbiting on higher belts.

      Attempts to balance the demands of targeting and providing imagery contributed to the large cost of the system. According to Muellner, the program went from considering LEO to MEO to a hybrid of both.

      “Like on other programs, if you don’t go forward [to the Hill] with a coherent story when the budget gets tough–as it does almost every year–it’s going to be a target,” Muellner said. “I think that’s exactly what happened.”

      2006 Budget Already In The Works

      Amid rumors earlier last week of the upcoming cut, Pentagon Space Acquisition Chief Peter Teets said he already is planning to resubmit some form of the SBR program to Congress in the FY06 budget, which is being developed at the U.S. Department of Defense. The conference report leaves just $75 million for SBR, a constellation of satellites that would provide continuous surveillance and targeting capabilities. The Pentagon originally requested $327.73 million for the program, which was designed to move the program off the drawing board and into actual engineering work.

      In their conference report, lawmakers from both chambers simply said they “agree” with the House position. The language in the House report included some of the most scathing arguments on any program included in the House version of the bill.

      In its decision, the committee cited estimates by the Pentagon Cost Analysis Improvement Group, which is largely respected as an accurate cost estimating body. According to those figures, the costs for acquiring and maintaining even a nine-satellite constellation would top $34 billion. “This amount is roughly equal to the life cycle cost of virtually all other Air Force satellite programs combined, including Advanced EHF, Wideband Gapfiller, GPS, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, and the Space Based Infrared System High,” the report language said.

      Perhaps more damaging, appropriators expressed considerable doubt that the $34 billion figure represented the true costs of SBR. Given the history of rising program costs and a more realistic definition of the program requirements, SBR’s real price tag could be more than $60 billion, according to the report.

      One Washington analyst adds that SBR’s poor showing this year–along with a slew of so-called transformational programs–is evidence that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s military transformation agenda is beginning to “unravel.” FY05 was the last full year, if President Bush is not re-elected this November, that Rumsfeld would be able to use the budget process to bring about his envisioned transformation to make the Pentagon a more networked, lighter and more lethal force. Loren Thompson with the Lexington Institute said in a July 22 issue brief that Rumsfeld’s transformation agenda now appears to be a “tree without roots.”

      –Sharon Weinberger and Amy Butler

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