Via Satellite: What program looks to be in the most trouble?
Thompson: I think there’s a real possibility that TSAT is simply going to disappear. When you see a program lose 40 percent of its funding in a single year and initial deployment flip to over a decade in the future, it has to make you doubtful about the political survivability of the effort. Last fall, I was sitting in a meeting with some Air Force officers and we were talking about the tougher budget environment and the tradeoffs that would have to be made. Someone immediately volunteered TSAT. In the context of the meeting I should have realized that what I was hearing was that satellite communications just doesn’t matter as much to the Air Force as replacing its fighters.
Via Satellite: You have said that negative comments being made about the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program are worrisome. Can you expand on this?
Thompson: The Future Combat Systems was conceived as the most ambitions modernization of Army equipment in two generations. It is really expensive and really challenging. But one of the places the Army has failed to explain it well is by telling Congress how much it would cost not to build the program. In other words, we can’t stand still. If we don’t do FCS we have to do something else. Something else could be a lot more costly than FCS. The Army projects that cost over the next 25 years is approximately 4 percent of its budget. If it really delivers leap-ahead [technology], then that’s a bargain, but if it doesn’t, we need to understand what other costs we’ll incur to keep our forces survivable. I think the Army has done a godawful job of explaining FCS to the world. It’s really a pretty simple idea, you need vehicles that are more survivable, deployable and maintainable, and you need a network to connect them together. Why the Army can’t tell that story is one of the great mysteries of modern American life.
Via Satellite: What do you think will be the ultimate result of a ranking of programs?
Thompson: I can tell you what it’s going to mean for many warfighters. 20 years from now they aren’t going to be able to communicate when they’re on the move, and in some of the most stressful parts of their operational existence they’re going to be out of touch with higher command. There were some very special things that TSAT was going to do for warfighters that we already need today. If TSAT slips toward the horizon or disappears entirely we’re going to see warfighters killed because of lack of connectivity. In an era of fast-paced warfare, the notion that you can’t communicate unless you stop the tanks sounds a bit antiquated.