Lawmakers Blast DOD For Lack Of Transparency In NPOESS Restructure

By | June 12, 2006 | Uncategorized

By Michael Sirak

House lawmakers sharply criticized the Department of Defense (DOD), and in particular the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, for failing to provide them with information they say they need to access the merits of the U.S. government’s revamped next-generation weather satellite program.

“How in the hell can we evaluate anything if we are limited in the amount of information given to us?” asked Rep. Sherman Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, during a hearing on the multi-billion-dollar National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

Boehlert, along with the panel’s ranking member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chided the three government witnesses who appeared before them to explain the restructured NPOESS program over the lack of transparency into the changes being implemented. Appearing before the panel were Under Secretary of the Air Force Ronald Sega, along with Michael Griffin, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator, and Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NPOESS is being developed jointly by the DOD, NASA and NOAA. Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] leads an industry team that includes Raytheon Co. [RTN].

Much of the lawmakers’ ire was directed toward Sega, as he was the sole DOD representative testifying and the program restructure was driven by the Pentagon.

Gordon said the data provided prior to the hearing by the DOD, in particular by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, headed by Kenneth Krieg, was only a bare-bones description and “not sufficient” for them to form their own opinions on the soundness of the restructured project.

In particular, panel members said they wanted access to the cost figures produced by the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group (CAIG) during the months-long recertification process.

“On a bipartisan basis,” Boehlert said, the committee is saying “we need to get more information.”

Sega said he would pass along the message to Krieg.

When asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Krieg’s office told Defense Daily, sister publication of Space & Missile Defense Report, that “the department has and will continue to respond to Congress as appropriate.”

DOD notified Congress, per U.S. law, that there remains a critical need for the NPOESS, albeit in restructured form, even in the face of ballooning costs and major schedule slips that have placed it under increased scrutiny of late. The Pentagon is required under a provision known as Nunn-McCurdy to recertify a program whose estimated costs grow by 25 percent or more from one reporting period to the next. (Please see full story in this issue.)

NPOESS was conceived in 1994 as a six-satellite constellation that would provide sophisticated weather monitoring and forecasting capabilities, all for about $6.5 billion, according to a DOD estimate in 2000, or $7.4 billion based on a more recent projection in 2004. With the restructure, NPOESS will now consist of only four satellites, each carrying less sensors than originally planned, for a price tag of $11.1 billion. The price climbs to $11.5 billion if the costs of launching the satellites are factored, according to the DOD.

Under the new restructure, first launch is not anticipated until 2013, five years later than originally planned. Sega’s briefing charts showed that the second satellite would be placed in orbit around 2016, followed by the third in 2020 and the fourth around 2022. The constellation is expected to operate through 2026.

“To summarize,” wrote Lautenbacher in his statement to the committee, “the certified NPOESS program will have fewer satellites, less sensors, while costing more money. But we will provide continuity of all current polar satellite data critical for our weather forecasting models while satisfying our requirements for future forecasting improvements.”

It is the continuity of providing space-based weather data at a level equal to or greater than today’s capabilities that drove the restructure, said Sega. He and Lautenbacher said the restructured program has far fewer chances of slipping and running into the same problems as before, since the new baseline was drawn up and funded to a 90 percent level of confidence, which is much higher than before.

Nonetheless, there still is a chance that the new cost estimates and schedule could falter, noted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). He bemoaned the “black hole” that has already consumed billions under the program, calling the situation “mind boggling.”

Other members voiced additional concerns. As part of the restructured program, the United States will rely on sensors aboard European-operated satellites for data in one of the three polar weather-sensing systems. David Wu (D-Ore.) expressed concern that the United States might not always have assured access to the data in the timelines necessary to support combat operations if the Europeans were not fully cooperative.

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