Satellite Shootdowns

In two fell swoops, Congress and the Pentagon have changed the course of two future satellite programs. The Associated Press reported Oct. 21 that Congressional intelligence appropriators have killed the broad area space-based imagery collection satellite system, or BASIC, by gutting about $1 billion earmarked for it in Fiscal 2009. And, in a separate piece on Oct. 24, AP reported (via Forbes) that the Pentagon has delayed the multi-billion-dollar contract award for the Air Force’s transformational satellite communications system from December to an undetermined date, which could be late 2010. Under BASIC, the Pentagon and Intelligence Community planned to procure and operate two commercial-based imagery satellites to fill a potential coverage gap early next decade. But there was controversy from the start as some national security officials considered BASIC redundant since the US government already supports the commercial Earth-imagery satellite industry and makes much use of its products, and its two principal players, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, are building satellites on a par in capability with what BASIC would have provided. Meanwhile, as for TSAT, it looks like the Pentagon intends to devise a less costly program, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in an issue brief Oct. 21. But even that may not survive the next Administration, he warns. In June, the Air Force awarded TSAT bidders Boeing and Lockheed Martin contracts for additional risk-reduction work, pending the selection of one of them as the winner. Work under these contracts included studies of potential variants, including one dubbed “TSAT Lite.” Last month, Gary Payton, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, said the Air Force was proceeding deliberately in its evaluation of the two bids and didn’t anticipate the winner before mid December. Guess that was overly optimistic.