Boards urge immediate deployment of advanced satellites

Defense science and intelligence boards warn that continued delay in awarding $16 billion contract keeps badly needed surveillance images and data from warfighters and the Navy.

A joint report released on Monday strongly urged the Defense Department to fully fund and deploy as soon as possible a $16 billion advanced satellite system that would give the military the ability to transmit larger amounts of surveillance and intelligence information at a much faster rate.

The Transformational Communication Satellite system, which the Air Force is building, will transmit images, video and signals intelligence from unmanned aerial vehicles and spy satellites to Army and Marine units on the battlefield and Navy ships.

The Air Force had planned to award the contract for the satellites this month, with Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. competing for the pact. But the award has been delayed because of both Air Force funding issues and the Joint Staff is reexamining the contract's requirements, Chris Isleib, a Pentagon spokesman, said in October.

A report released by the Defense Science Board and the Intelligence Science Board warned against further delays, saying the TSAT system is "essential to enhancing military and intelligence operations."

The report, dated Oct. 28 but posted on the Defense Science Board Web site on Monday, warned, "Without TSAT, mobile land forces and Navy ships will lack sufficient assured [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] communications capacity, and the military and [intelligence community] will be unable to . . . fully benefit from the large and growing quantity of data generated from new airborne space and ISR systems."

TSAT consists of five satellites that will send encrypted video images and other data over an anti-jamming communications system at a rate of 2 gigabytes per second. (The average home has an Internet connection that downloads data at 7 megabytes per second, roughly one-third the throughput of a TSAT satellite.) In addition, the new system will be 10,000 times faster than data rates from the existing secure military satellite system, MILSTAR II, the science boards report noted.

TSAT will come equipped with an Internet router in space to manage communications traffic and laser systems to communicate with other satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles. These operate at 10 gigabytes per second, which is equal to the speed of the major telecommunications carriers' fastest terrrestial fiber-optic communications circuits.

TSAT's high-speed communications is needed urgently by ground tactical and naval units to transmit broadband intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, the eport stated. It recommended Defense "deploy TSAT as soon as possible to supply the high-capacity communications for moving data to the backbone network and to provide assured networking for ... mobile tactical users."

The boards also expressed apprehension that there was no substitute for TSAT. "The task force is concerned that there is no hedge against possible TSAT delays or cancelation, which provides assured wide bandwidth communications," the report said. It recommended that "the secretary of Defense direct the Air Force to pick up the pace of the TSAT program, continue technology development and risk reduction, and fully fund it."

Industry and Defense sources said the Air Force has been reluctant to fully back TSAT because of lack of funding for other missions. Bernie Skoch, a consultant with Suss Consulting, said he understood the Air Force's reluctance to fund a joint program such as TSAT when it has an "enormous list of desperately needed but inadequately funded" requirements of its own.

Skoch suggested Defense fund joint command, control, communications and intelligence programs like TSAT through an organization modeled on the Special Forces Command. Although the command draws personnel from all military services, it has its own acquisition budget.

He said the Defense Science Board "did its homework and is saying it like it is: Joint warfighters need TSAT, and sooner is better than later. The intelligence community has a huge stake in the effort, too, as there are important implications for them if the program is delayed."

Both Boeing and Lockheed viewed the report as a strong endorsement of the new satellite system. John Peterson, Boeing's TSAT program director, said the report emphasizes the increasing need for the network capabilities that TSAT will bring to warfighters and indicates that the services need the system immediately.

Steve Tatum, a spokesman for Lockheed, said the report makes a strong case for the system, which will provide more information to more users. It will allow warfighters to communicate while on the move, which also will improve their chances for survival and make them more lethal.