This week Pentagon policymakers will begin revealing the investment choices they have made in putting together the fiscal 2004 defense budget. Most of the choices are smart. The Air Force’s F/A-22 multirole fighter, essential to maintaining global air dominance, is kept on track. The Navy gets to keep its next-generation aircraft carrier, but only because it agreed to accelerate the introduction of transformational technologies. The Army and Marines have been put on notice that they must fix their future rotorcraft programs or face termination. And all the services receive increased funding for cutting-edge sensors and communication links.
But in the one area offering the most leverage for future warfighters, policymakers will have little to say. That area is space, or more specifically, the super-secret spacecraft designed to spy on America’s overseas adversaries. Secretary Rumsfeld has made the protection and utilization of space assets a pillar of military transformation, and he is advancing bold plans for upgrading space-based communications, navigation and early-warning satellites. However, when it comes to the orbital sensors used to take precise pictures of enemies and tap into their most sensitive electronic communications, he has inherited quite a mess.
The problems begin with the National Security Agency’s billion-dollar electronic eavesdropping satellites. Changes in the global telecommunications infrastructure such as the proliferation of fiber have made it much harder to intercept messages from space. Even if they hadn’t, none of the new satellites intended to support NSA has managed to make it into orbit over the last several years. One was lost on launch. Another had to be reworked. And ambitious plans for a futuristic “Integrated Overhead Signals-Intelligence Architecture,” dubbed IOSA-2, have degenerated into piecemeal upgrades.
The program to develop next-generation imagery satellites is in worse shape. It is part of a “Future Imagery Architecture” (FIA) that will integrate ground processing and dissemination capabilities with a range of overhead sensors — government and commercial, air-breathing and orbital. The FIA satellite constellation is supposed to replace Advanced KH-11 spacecraft capable of distinguishing objects as small as ten centimeters, and lesser-resolution Lacrosse imaging radars that can see through clouds and in the dark. It wasn’t conceived to offer great gains in “granularity” — atmospheric distortion precludes that — but greater flexibility and responsiveness.
However, the value of FIA depends on timely deployment, because existing imagery spacecraft are beginning to run down. One of the Lacrosse satellites flying above Iraq is over a decade old, and three of the five other imaging satellites watching Saddam were launched in the mid-1990s.
Unfortunately, FIA is running far behind schedule, and its cost overruns are starting to draw money away from more transformational systems still in development. Some of its most innovative design features have already been lost. Policymakers will have to decide soon whether to stick with the program or start over, because the looming gap in imagery can’t be fully covered from commercial satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles.
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