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TSAT May Not Launch Until After 2018, Senate Panel Hears

By | March 10, 2008

      House Panel: Concern That Budget Plans May Short TSAT By $4 Billion, Delaying It By At Least Two Years

      The Transformational Satellite (TSAT) communications program is slipping into the future, and now may not launch the first satellite until sometime after 2018, key lawmakers were told.

      Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee, noted that initially TSAT was supposed to have an initial launch in 2012; then 2016; then 2018.

      He asked for an update from Gary Payton, deputy Air Force undersecretary for space programs.

      Payton at first responded that the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite communications system is progressing, reducing pressure to deploy TSAT rapidly.

      The plan is to loft a fourth AEHF satellite into orbit, even though that will mean program costs will rise, perhaps beyond Nunn-McCurdy limits.

      Payton said that the AEHF program development means that officials can take more time on the TSAT program, "so we are taking this time to re-phase the first block of TSAT."

      Responding to Nelson’s question, Payton replied, "We are not necessarily married to a 2018 launch" of the first TSAT satellite.

      If it won’t be in 2018, then when will the first bird go up? Nelson asked.

      "We do not yet know" when the first launch date will be, Payton said. At this point, setting any schedule for that "would be premature." Since the launch date is unknown, it just as easily could possibly be earlier than 2018, Payton reasoned.

      Nelson indicated that the possibility the first launch could be later than 2018 was news to him.

      The Boeing Co. [BA] is the TSAT prime contractor, with many major firms also involved: Raytheon Co. [RTN], Ball Aerospace [BAL], General Dynamics Corp. [GD], Cisco Systems, IBM [IBM], L-3 Communications [LLL], BBN Technologies, Hughes Network Systems, Lucent Technologies, Harris, EMS Technologies, and Alpha Informatics.

      Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the Air Force Space Command, noted progress also is being made in other areas. For example, the first of a planned six Wideband Gapfiller, or Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), satellites has been launched.

      That is another Boeing-led program.

      Nelson also asked about the Mobile User Objective System, a narrowband communications satellite system, and was told that it still is set for launch perhaps in December 2009 with initial capability in March 2010.

      To be sure, there have been some delays that have chewed into the planned schedule and "eaten up some of the margin" of extra time allotted for unforeseen events, according to Rear Adm. Kenneth W. Deutsch, director of warfare integration in the chief of naval operations office.

      House Hearing

      Separately, TSAT also was a focus of the hearing by the corresponding panel on the House side of Capitol Hill.

      Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee, expressed concern that the Bush administration budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, would delay fielding TSAT "by at least two years," expressing puzzlement as to "why $4 billion previously designated for TSAT was removed" from the budget.

      She said Congress will work with defense and intelligence leaders "to put our national security space programs on an affordable, sustainable track, one which accounts for the change in the threat environment and will protect our warfighters and the American people."

      The space acquisition system, Tauscher said, may be "fundamentally broken."

      Tauscher also praised the use of a sea-based Aegis weapons control system and a Standard Missile-3 interceptor to knock down a dead U.S. intelligence satellite containing a tank filled with 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine fuel.

      That intercept meant the satellite and tank wouldn’t come plunging down from orbit into a populated area, she noted. And the anti-satellite shot was executed with the satellite just above the atmosphere, so that space debris from its annihilation quickly fell into the atmosphere and was safely incinerated in the heat of reentry.

      She contrasted that with the irresponsibility of China, which proved it could destroy satellites by using a ground-based interceptor to demolish one of its own aging weather satellites in January 2007, far above the atmosphere, to create a long-lasting cloud of dangerous debris imperiling satellites and spacecraft.

      She said the question now is whether U.S. space assets now are at risk of attack by enemy anti-satellite shots.

      "I want to make sure that my subcommittee, as well as the Department of Defense, is doing everything we can to ensure that our warfighters retain the advantage [that] space- based systems provide, and that this advantage is not degraded by the Chinese test or any future attacks," she said.

      She also cautioned that such attacks can involve a ground-based direct-ascent interceptor missile such as China used, or ground-based lasers or electronic jammers.

      China disabled a U.S. military satellite by "painting" it with a ground-based laser.

      Tauscher also said it is key to acquire space situational awareness, which can permit the United States to know if a satellite or other space system fails because it is under attack, and to know the nature and source of that attack.

      For testimony of the witnesses before her subcommittee, please go to on the Web and click on House Armed Services Committee, then click on Hearing Information, and go to the March 5 hearing.

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