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Hearings show our dependence on military space technology

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The United States may be falling behind in transportation, education and health care down here on Earth, but its military infrastructure is certainly way ahead when it comes to imagery and communications satellites armed with defensive and offensive capabilities out there in space.

That the United States leads in the militarization of space is apparent from House and Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearings this month on the fiscal 2013 budget of $9.7 billion for military space programs.

Like many Pentagon programs, these have had amazing successes but also billion-dollar overruns and costly failures.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, released at Wednesday’s Senate hearing, showed major Defense space acquisition programs “have increased by about $11.6 billion — 321 percent — from initial estimates for fiscal years 2011 through 2016.”

The military services see them as the future.

“Our assured access to space and cyberspace is foundational to today’s military operations and to our ability to project power whenever and wherever needed across the planet,” said Air Force Gen. William Shelton, head of Space Command. He listed enhancements to our space capabilities in “missile warning, positioning, navigation and timing; satellite communications; space situational awareness [knowing where everything is in space]; and space launch.”

Army Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, who heads Army Space and Missile Defense Command, claimed his service is “the biggest user of space-based capabilities,” which are critical to land operations. “If the Army wants to shoot, move or communicate, it needs space,” Formica said.

Implicit in those statements, whether the general realized it, is that without access to space the Army couldn’t do as well what it used to do before there was all this space-dependent gadgetry.

“Space capabilities enable effective command-and-control responsiveness and agility necessary for a globally engaged, superior naval force consistent with emphasis on forward operations and joint operations,” said the Navy Department’s Robert Winokur, its director of oceanography, space and maritime domain awareness.

Not surprisingly, each promoted one or more of his own service’s successes. For the Air Force, Shelton talked of “our efficient space procurement actions” for its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) Program, which provides nuclear-protected communications to ground-based strategic and conventional forces.

It was later that Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the panel of “the disconnect between ground equipment, particularly user equipment, and the satellites themselves. . . . The user equipment is just arriving years later than the satellites.”

One of those, Chaplain reported, is the AEHF ground-based terminal. It is not expected to be operational until 2017, three years after the satellite is scheduled to be operational. In addition, the first AEHF satellite, launched in August 2010, didn’t reach orbit until October 2011, 13 months after schedule, because one of its propulsion systems failed. Two more AEHF satellites are to be launched — one next month, the other in fall 2013. Three more are coming by 2019.

Winokur promoted the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), which will increase text and voice capacity by more than 10 times and still carry current UHF payload for near -term usage. However, the GAO noted the first of five MUOS satellites was launched 26 months late.

The Air Force is upgrading the 34 on-orbit satellites that constitute the worldwide navigation Global Positioning System. The 12 new GPS IIF satellites have redundant digital atomic clocks and military signals more resistant to jamming. However, the first GPS IIF was launched more than four years late and the program has had cost growth through April 2011 of $2.6 billion, more than triple the projected cost, the GAO said.

Shelton talked of “passive and active defense measures to deter, and if necessary, defeat potential adversary attacks against our forces.” For satellite defense, Shelton mentioned a rapid-attack identification system, called RDGS-0. It has a central operations center that detects and reports sources of radio jammers hitting U.S. military and commercial satellites.

International discussions are set for June. Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, told the Senate panel the talks may ultimately lead to “a voluntary code of conduct.” But she added such an agreement would have “the inherent right of self-defense reserved to every country.”

Formica in his prepared statement appeared to sum up a view shared by all the services: “Virtually every Army operation relies on space capabilities to enhance the effectiveness of our force — there is no going back.”

Maybe, just maybe, the U.S. military is becoming too dependent on space.

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