Pushing Toward the Final Frontier

The U.S. military operation in Afghanistan opened a window into how advances in space-based electronics and communications are revolutionizing the American art of war. Operating in traditional garb with local Afghan militias, Army and Air Force special operations forces moved about the countryside on horseback. But they were armed with laser rangefinders and powerful laptop computers, enabling them to upload to and download from satellites communications and intelligence information and precise targeting and positioning information from the space-based Global Positioning System. The troops were able to direct the full force of American air power at overmatched Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, which were quickly routed.

In a January 2001 report, a congressionally chartered commission to assess defense operations in space highlighted the importance of space-based communications and information systems to transforming the way the military wages war. The report argued that the nation's ability to dominate space will prove as vital in the information age as were shipyards and factories-America's "arsenal of democracy"-during the industrial age. The commission's chairman was Donald Rumsfeld, now Defense secretary.

Rumsfeld is taking advantage of his new position to push through many of the commission's recommendations. A Pentagon briefing paper issued in 2001 said Rumsfeld's top priorities included modernizing command, control, communications and space capabilities; deploying a missile defense system; and transforming the military with new technologies-many of which integrate space-based electronics and communications systems.

The Pentagon's largest program in this category is the $1.5 billion Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), designed to provide a constellation of satellites in both low and high orbits to provide improved warning of ballistic missile launches, as well as to support national missile defense and intelligence collection efforts.

The SBIRS program, however, has recently suffered significant cost overruns. Earlier this year, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency announced it would restructure the SBIRS-Low program because of increased costs. Under the reorganization, former competitors TRW and Spectrum Astro will work together on the spacecraft, and Raytheon and Northrop Grumman will develop sensor payloads.

In May, Pentagon acquisition chief Edward Aldridge signed a letter to Congress giving his stamp of approval to the SBIRS-High program even though it had exceeded cost limits by at least 25 percent. Insisting that "the alternatives were much more expensive, given the state of the current program," Aldridge expressed confidence in a new management structure for the program set up by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which are partners in constructing the high-orbit satellites.

Air Force officials also confirmed that another major satellite program-the $2.7 billion Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite communications system-might need to be restructured because of cost overruns. The AEHF program is run by Lockheed Martin and TRW.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld has ordered a study of the feasibility of a proposed new space-based radar system. Designed to provide an unprecedented all-weather surveillance capability for military commanders, the program was killed in the fiscal 2001 Defense appropriations act. Since that time, however, the Air Force has sought to restore it.

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