Military space programs at risk, experts say

U.S. national security space capabilities, so critical to deployed combat forces and national missile defense, and the supporting industrial base are at a dangerous "tipping point" and need focused leadership and long-term stability in programs and budgets to avoid a crisis, a panel of administration officials and defense space experts warned Tuesday.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry (Trey) Obering, the former director of the Missile Defense Agency, warned that the soaring cost and prolonged development time for new satellites had left the nation with no backup systems to replace any that could be affected by hostile action.

With the anti-satellite capabilities demonstrated by China and others, the space assets so important to U.S. missile defense are "extremely vulnerable," Obering said.

Obering, who was the immediate predecessor to current MDA Director Patrick O'Reilly, and two Pentagon officials advocated reducing the initial capabilities of satellites to get systems in use faster and at lower cost, then build on those capabilities for later models. "Take smaller bites . . . reduce the risk," Obering said.

Steven Miller, a Pentagon cost analyst, said, "We don't have anything in the barn. Assured access [to space] depends on having those systems and the ability to get them into space."

James Miller, the principal undersecretary of defense for policy, said he saw "major challenges and opportunities" in the long-term national security space program. The administration is working on a new space policy, export control changes and a 15-year space budget as steps to improve defense space capabilities, he said.

Noting that the U.S. share of the international space market fell from 73 percent in 1995 to 23 percent in 2005, he said, "We do need to rebuild U.S. leadership in space."

The officials spoke at a Capitol Hill forum held in conjunction with the release of an Aerospace Industry Association report that warned of the fragile condition of the national security space capabilities and industrial base.

The association's report said the space industrial base was at "a tipping point beyond which irreparable harm to our nation's defense and economy could occur." The report advocated leadership and program stability, modernization of the space infrastructure, changes in the export controls that limit U.S. international sales, efforts to sustain and replace a declining space work force and "robust" space research and development programs.

Aerospace Industry Association president Marion Blakey praised the efficiency initiatives and procurement improvements introduced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the sweeping revision of export controls ordered by President Obama.

Those efforts were supported by the other speakers at the forum, all of whom stressed the importance of space assets to U.S. defenses.

Because the nation is so dependent on space for surveillance, precision navigation and strike, long-range communications and missile warning, James Miller, the undersecretary, said, "it's clear the U.S. has the most to lose" from attacks on space assets. He said the administration was committed to developing the capabilities to deter, defend and, if necessary, defeat threats to U.S. space assets.

While acknowledging the need to invest more on space, he said, "We have to be smart. We're not going to buy our way out of this problem."

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