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Military Space Programs Seen Rallying From Neglect, Mistakes

By | May 30, 2006

      Military space programs, in the past burdened by blunders and underfunding, now are embarked upon a renaissance, a well-known defense analyst asserts.

      For example, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, a weather monitoring asset, will continue despite withering criticism from lawmakers. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, May 15, 2006, page 1.)

      Despite any woes in the program, NPOESS provides a much-needed capability, and should be continued, according to Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank near the Pentagon that focuses on defense and other issues.

      To be sure, Thompson said, there has been little adroit management of the military space program.

      “The people running America’s military space program haven’t exactly distinguished themselves by making smart moves in recent years, but they made such a move last week,” Thompson said.

      “Rather than deciding to kill or cut back a next-generation weather satellite program facing cost overruns, policymakers decided to keep the program on track and restructure contractor incentives to emphasize performance.”

      That decision came, however, after an hours-long hearing of the House Science Committee, in which Johnnie Frazier, the Commerce Department inspector general, noted that even though the NPOESS program is more than $3 billion over initial life-cycle cost estimates and 17 months behind schedule, the contractor has received $123 million in incentive payments.

      The original $4.5 billion contract was awarded in 2002 to TRW Inc., which now is a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC], heading a team including Raytheon Co. [RTN]. Now the Government Accountability Office is predicting the tab might be closer to $9.7 billion.

      Northrop says, however, that since the program was given a new starting point in an interim plan, it has been on schedule and on budget.

      And Thompson says it is well that lawmakers, while criticizing cost increases, see that the program must continue.

      “The reason it was a smart move is that the satellite isn’t really all that troubled–a couple of subcontractors have fouled up work on sensors–and the satellite will provide faster, more detailed weather information at a time when there is unprecedented concern about global climate change,” Thompson stated.

      He provided his views in a paper issued as the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense held a briefing on how the agencies plan to track hurricanes better, and assess damage more accurately, after the disaster of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year.

      Thompson noted that NPOESS, managed jointly by DOD and the Commerce Department National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will provide weather data to both the military and civilians.

      The program involves NASA as well.

      In his paper, Thompson concedes that NPOESS has shown its flaws, as have other space programs, when well-meaning people attempt to push ever-greater capabilities into each platform.

      “In the past, too many cooks have tended to weigh down orbital entrees with an excess of ingredients, and NPOESS is no exception,” Thompson observed, adding that the satellite system “carries 13 different sensors to track every conceivable environmental indicator.”

      While this ordinarily might amount to a capabilities overload, that is not the case here, Thompson stated.

      In this program, “designers made a decision to bolt the diverse sensors to a common ‘bus’ [or satellite system] and integrate information on the ground rather than in space, so NPOESS doesn’t entail the Herculean integration challenge seen on some other satellites,” Thompson stated.

      The fact that leaders in Congress and the Pentagon are willing to continue backing for NPOESS is but one sign that the military space platform is turning the corner and beginning to improve, he asserted.

      “The decision to keep NPOESS going is one in a series of developments that suggest military space is beginning to recover from past mistakes,” Thompson stated.

      A recent vociferous critic of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Thompson had some kind words for the Cabinet member

      Rumsfeld “entered office determined to exploit America’s lead in orbital systems, only to discover that his predecessors had nearly wrecked the Pentagon’s space efforts,” Thompson wrote.

      Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States, no longer facing a major rival, therefore embarked upon a “peace dividend,” spending money on domestic needs while cutting military outlays, some research efforts and more.

      In that atmosphere, “Virtually every next-generation spacecraft program was burdened by underfunded budgets, weak government oversight, and excessive performance requirements,” Thompsoen recalled. “For example, the future missile-warning satellite had 18 ‘key performance parameters,’ four times the number that experts recommend for a manageable program.”

      Facing this reality, Rumsfeld & Co. have spent a great deal of time attempting to right listing programs, rather than venturing forth on new efforts, according to Thompson.

      “Rumsfeld’s team has spent most of its tenure trying to fix space rather than exploit it,” the analyst said.

      “But they’ve made progress. A high-level review of the missile-warning satellite in California last week went about as well as any that program has received.”

      To be sure, “there are still problems, but the program seems to be coming together in time to avert any gap in coverage (the system must be in orbit by 2015 as legacy satellites begin to fail).”

      And Pentagon leaders are adopting realistic alternatives, rather than blindly hoping for success, Thompson said.

      “Not content to bet on success after many disappointments, Air Force Under Secretary Ron Sega has put in place both high-end and low-end backup plans to assure that if the program falters, there will still be continuity in the missile-warning mission,” Thompson said.

      And there are bright points elsewhere, the analyst found.

      “The critically important Transformational Communications Satellite (T-SAT) has been reorganized to emphasize a step-by-step evolution of capabilities rather than a leap into the void,” Thompson continued.

      Lawmakers have criticized Pentagon leaders on some programs for pressing ahead with design and development of new platforms before needed technological innovations are mature.

      T-SAT “will probably be folded into the pre-existing Advanced EHF [Extremely High Frequency military communications] satellite system after Rumsfeld departs, but either approach is an improvement over the original plan,” Thompson argued.

      “And the controversial Space Radar system for tracking and imaging ground targets will also follow an incremental ‘block’ enhancement schedule favored by Sega,” the analyst said.

      “So despite all the bad press for the military space program recently, things seem to be getting better.”

      Providing a satellite-style overview of military space programs, Thompson concluded:

      “In the end, success comes down to three simple factors: (1) realistic requirements, (2) stable funding, and (3) competent managers. Progress is being made on all three fronts.”

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