National Reconnaissance Office cancels contracts for proposed space radar project

By Megan Scully

April 4, 2008

Officials at the National Reconnaissance Office last week officially notified Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin that they are terminating their contracts on the troubled Space Radar development project, effectively ending a program whose support on Capitol Hill had been dwindling amid cost concerns, schedule delays and technological problems.

Neither the Air Force nor the National Reconnaissance Office, however, have completely given up on the Space Radar concept, a common radar system for the military and the intelligence community that would provide persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance around the world.

Indeed, in a March 6 statement, NRO, which assumed leadership of the program, concluded that the current program "is not affordable and will be restructured immediately." The government, however, will "continue to vigorously pursue alternatives" for developing other similar capabilities, according to the statement.

The day before NRO officials issued the statement announcing they were ending the program, NRO Director Scott Large told the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee that the intelligence community and the Defense Department have "mapped out" an alternative approach to the program that addresses Congress's concerns.

Large said he hoped to be able to provide Congress more information within 45 days. "Good. We'll see you in 46 days," said Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif. During that hearing, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., noted that he has letters of support for the program from Pacific Command chief Adm. Timothy Keating and military leaders indicating that capabilities provided by Space Radar are both unique and irreplaceable.

One week later, during a March 12 House Armed Services hearing, Keating said the surveillance capabilities that would have been provided by Space Radar may be more pressing now than even a year ago.

"Open ocean surveillance and denied area surveillance is a significant requirement of ours, and the platform that satisfies the requirement is of less interest than is the overarching requirement," Keating said. "The requirement still exists."

With plans for any other future space radar capabilities still unknown, the decision to scrap the program could free up fiscal 2009 funding for other space or defense initiatives.

But the exact size of the fiscal 2009 request for the program, still in its development stages, has resided in the classified portion of the budget for the last two years. Prior to fiscal 2008, the program was funded out of unclassified Air Force accounts, with the administration requesting more than $200 million for the program in both fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2007.

According to a GAO report released this week on weapons systems, the cost to develop, produce and operate Space Radar through 2027 was estimated at between $20 billion and $25 billion.

The military had planned to launch the first Space Radar satellite in 2016, but GAO found that the five technologies central to Space Radar had not matured rapidly enough, suggesting that the ambitious program schedule did not allow for enough time for development and production.

By Megan Scully

April 4, 2008