The Washington Post

Commercial satellites could rent space — in space — for military cargo

The Defense Department is looking for ways to cut the multibillion-dollar annual costs of its space programs, which include putting some of its military payloads on commercial satellites, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.

“On space programs we’re paying too much, and you will see us doing a lot with management of space programs coming up,” said Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “You can look into the future, and the costs projected for these [space programs] are just not affordable.”

Reductions in defense spending for space and other programs, Carter said, would largely go toward meeting the goal set by President Obama to cut overall national security spending by $400 billion over the next decade. Pentagon budgets represent the bulk of spending on national security.

Speaking to an audience at the Heritage Foundation, Carter said one “opportunity” for the Pentagon was to rely on “hosted payloads,” with a private company effectively offering real estate on its satellites for Defense Department payloads. That, Carter said, “obviates the need for us to have our own spacecraft.”

His remarks, which were made in answer to a question, follow an announcement late last month by seven satellite companies, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, that they had formed the “Hosted Payload Alliance” to promote the idea of government payloads carried on commercial satellites.

The Pentagon’s own launch vehicle program, called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, has worked well, but “it’s costing too much,” Carter said.

In January, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Air Force would spend some of the money it saved with new efficiencies out of the fiscal 2011 budget to procure additional EELVs “to assure access to space for both military and other government agencies while sustaining our industrial base.”

Carter said one approach to cutting costs of satellites and launch vehicles would be to make block purchases with a guarantee to buy a certain number over time. The proposed fiscal 2012 budget now before Congress contains $1.76 billion for the EELV program, which will grow to a total of $9.9 billion over five years.

Congress was told earlier this year that the Air Force has committed to buy four of five EELVs — in the next two years, in a block, and five per year for the three remaining years — in the five-year Future Years Defense Program.

“This will have the effect of lowering the cost per booster and contributing to a more stable market for our industrial base,” Air Force Undersecretary Erin C. Conaton told the House Armed Services strategic subcommittee last month.

The subcommittee was also told that the fiscal 2012 budget seeks advanced appropriations for block buys for new high-frequency communications satellites and that funds for block buys would be in the fiscal 2013 budget for the space-based infrared satellites used to spot missile launches.

Carter said that while most attention is focused on cutting funds to purchase various weapons systems, more money for reductions needs to be found in other areas, such as the $200 billion spent annually on contracting for services, the $200 billion for logistics and $100 billion for maintenance.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

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