Magazine article National Defense

Out-of-Synch Satellite and Terminal Programs Cost Pentagon Millions

Magazine article National Defense

Out-of-Synch Satellite and Terminal Programs Cost Pentagon Millions

Article excerpt

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A poster child for Defense Department waste is currently making its way to orbit.

The first Advanced-Extremely High Frequency communications satellite was launched Aug. 14, and because of a problem firing its motor in the boost phase, is making a slower than expected climb to a spot some 25,000 miles above Earth.

But its tardy arrival on orbit is not the source of the waste. It's the tardy arrival of the terminals that will connect the satellite to war fighters on the ground or in the air who want to make use of its secure communications.

It is an example of a longtime problem in the U.S. military: a lack of coordination between those who build and launch satellites, and those who develop the devices that connect the billion-dollar spacecraft with soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

The costs to war fighters who don't have tools they need are incalculable, said one officer who represented the "customer" side during a panel discussion at the Milcom conference here.

"I love that cooking. I need more of it and I need it sooner. And the kitchen is closed down. I can't understand, from a war fighter perspective, why we're putting capability on orbit, but I can't exploit it," said Air Force Col. David Uhrich, director of command, control, communications and computer systems and chief information officer at Joint Forces Command.

The Government Accountability Office's Cristina T. Chaplain, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on strategic forces, said of the five space systems in development requiring user terminals, none were aligned with the launch of the satellites.

Program managers who build satellites and those who field terminals are operating on different timelines, with different budgets and they face different technical challenges, experts at the panel said.

And they're protecting their "rice bowls" and turf, said an executive who once served in the military on a terminal program.

"The dollar value of the satellite is so huge that you put all your attention there," said the executive, who asked not to be named. As deadlines loom, terminal and satellite program managers engage in what is known as "launch chicken." No one wants to be the first to admit that his program will be delayed.

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"I'm not going to announce my slip because you're going to announce your slip first," the executive said. It becomes political, the executive added.

Col. Charles Cynamon, commander of the MILSATCOM advanced concepts group at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, said: "Our challenge is synchronizing in the face of fielding delays, both on the space segment and the ground segment."

The lack of coordination also reduces the time the satellites are operationally effective, he added. The spacecraft only have a set number of years in orbit before they begin to degrade. A two-year gap between when the satellite is launched and when the terminals come online means two years where the satellite is not being used to its full potential.

Meanwhile, no one seems to be in charge of synchronizing the terminals and spacecraft.

The panel--composed of representatives from the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Army, the joint terminal engineering office and Joint Forces Command--could not name anyone in the Defense Department who was in charge of ensuring that satellites and their corresponding terminals are fielded at the same time.

Cynamon said the cancellation of the Transformational-Satellite program hurt synchronization efforts.

"For a number of years, we were all focused on this transformational communication architecture. We had a very strong effort ... to integrate. Admittedly, there is a bit of a void now," he said. "We in the department are going through some changes organizationally as well funding challenges and requirements definitions. …

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