SASC Worries About GPS III, DOD Weather Satellites, Space Security

SASC Worries About GPS III, DOD Weather Satellites, Space Security

As members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) get ready to mark up their version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), replacing Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine is only one topic on their minds.  Cost overruns and schedule delays on the next generation of GPS satellites, access to weather satellite data to support DOD needs, and ensuring U.S. satellites can operate in a potentially hostile environment also are concerns.

These issues were debated at a SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing on April 29.   Although RD-180 dominated the discussion, it was not the only topic.

GPS III.  Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the first of the new generation of GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites, GPS III, is over two years behind schedule because of technical and manufacturing problems.   Launch of the first satellite has slipped 28 months, from April 2014 to August 2016.

The associated ground system, OCX, which promises anti-jamming capabilities, is four years late because of many issues including a “struggle to incorporate information assurance requirements…system engineering shortcomings, and management and oversight issues.”   Chaplain told committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that although the Air Force has “put a lot of corrective actions in place,” GAO remains concerned about management, oversight and contractor capabilities.

McCain said the program is $471 million, or 11 percent, over budget and demanded to know who was being held responsible.  Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Deborah Lee James replied the contractor had lost $160 million in fees and “we’re assessing other individuals to see if there’s other levels of accountability.”

DOD Weather Satellites.  DOD is closing in on a strategy for its weather satellite program after several years of analyzing alternatives following the 2010 cancellation of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  DOD had two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in storage at the time so was not in a rush to make a decision.  One of those two, DMSP-19, was launched last year.

The Air Force initially decided that it did not need the other, DMSP-20, but has changed its mind.  Hyten said the FY2016 request includes funds to continue storing and eventually launch it.   One key factor is that DOD has been relying on data from a European geostationary weather satellite, Meteosat 7, for coverage of the Indian Ocean region to support operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.  That satellite is at the end of its life and the European meteorological satellite organization, EUMETSAT, is not replacing it.  SecAF James told the subcommittee that the Europeans said last year they would replace it, but “reversed themselves,” leaving the Air Force in a quandary.  Eumetsat denies that it changed course and never planned to replace that satellite.

In any case, Hyten and James said that DMSP-20 now is needed to avoid gaps in coverage even though it will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”   One alternative – relying on data from Chinese or Russian satellites that cover that region – is unacceptable to Congress and to DOD.

Other factors in DMSP-20’s favor were that it would give DOD more time to make a final decision about its path forward on weather satellites, offer an additional competitive launch opportunity (implying that SpaceX could compete for this launch), and “indeed, the NGA and our own Air Force weather teams very, very much want to see that satellite launched,” James explained.

As for the next generation of DOD weather satellites, Hyten said that James had just approved using Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) principles for its Weather System Follow-on program.  ORS was created to meet tactical needs with small, inexpensive satellites that can be built and launched quickly.  Congress has been strongly supportive of ORS in the past, but will have to approve the decision to use it for the weather satellite program.

Space Security.  Three days before the hearing, CBS’s 60 Minutes program aired a segment featuring Hyten and James discussing the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to potential hostile action by countries like China and Russia.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opened the hearing by referencing the program and quoting several other DOD officials who have commented publicly on this issue.  He also noted that Hyten recently briefed the committee “on a number of troubling developments regarding our adversary’s desire to threaten U.S. space capabilities” and went on to say that “Russia and China have militarized space, there is no doubt about it.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) called the 60 Minutes segment a “wake-up call” for the nation.

The discussion during the open part of the hearing was very general, but the committee later moved into a closed session where classified information could be discussed.  In open session, James said that the Air Force has “directed, redirected or increased” planned funding for the next five years to provide $5 billion in classified and unclassified programs for “improving our space security at the enterprise level” and “incorporating security requirements in all of our space capabilities going forward.” Hyten said we must “be prepared to defend ourselves” including increasing mission assurance “by emphasizing resilience, reconstitution and defensive operations across many of our future programs.”

In other venues, the funding has been described as augmenting DOD capabilities to protect U.S. satellites, to deter and defend against hostile attacks, and, if necessary, defeat them.  Doug Loverro, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said at a March 25 House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing that the United States remains “absolutely committed to assuring the peaceful use of space for all” but “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary” and the additional funds “will make clear to all that attacks in space are not only strategically ill advised but militarily ineffective.”

SASC Markup Begins Tomorrow

SASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee will markup its portion of the NDAA tomorrow and the full committee will deal with it over the following three days.  Those meetings are closed.  Meanwhile, across Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee completed its markup on April 30 and the House is scheduled to debate the bill beginning this Wednesday.

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