NRO, Space Command, NASA Tout Common Language Of "Space Supremacy" at Conference

By Loring Wirbel (Colorado Springs, CO)

April 11 2002

The gloves are off in the wake of the "war on terror," and the U.S. Space Command, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and even NASA are singing from a unified songbook that boasts of "space supremacy."  At the 18th annual National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in April, the extent to which a new Cold War defines space priorities became abundantly clear.

While NRO, the nation's largest intelligence agency by budget, always held a central role at the annual conference, its presence defined the direction for military and civilian space communities alike at this year's symposium.  Peter Teets, the former chief operating officer of Lockheed-Martin, has been appointed to the dual roles of new NRO director and Under Secretary of the Air Force.  In addition, Teets has been designated as the primary procurement agent for the government responsible for national-security space, the first time an NRO director has held this post.

Teets and U.S. Space Command Commander in Chief Gen. Ed Eberhart were not shy in reiterating the message that the U.S. controls the planet through control of planetary space.  Teets updated an earlier saying of former NRO Director Keith Hall by proclaiming that "Afghanistan has reinforced something about space dominance:  We have it, we like it, and we're going to keep it."

Civilian interests under NASA are bowing to the new realities of the military setting the agenda.  NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe revealed that the agency's top budget priority for fiscal 2003 will be to spend close to $1 billion in nuclear propulsion, exploring both radioisotope thermal generators such as those used for Cassini, as well as possible mini-reactors for deep-space missions.  O'Keefe, a former Navy secretary and Pentagon comptroller, also reiterated how well NASA had served the Pentagon in providing imagery for the Afghan war, such as SeaWiFS and Terra spacecraft images provided to the Navy.  O'Keefe said that NASA was looking forward to providing agency resources for the "war on terror."

The blurring of lines between military and civilian resources was omnipresent at the conference.  Since the commercial space industry imploded during the 2001 recession, civilian companies and agencies have looked to their old friends in the military for dual-use functions.  Many talked at the conference of using space-based technology for the Office of Homeland Defense, though speakers from Boeing and Raytheon warned that there are plenty of civil liberties hurdles they must overcome to use imaging and database technologies to snoop on events in the U.S.  In fact, the corporate speakers said that often, their own insurance companies provide bigger blockades to using questionable technologies domestically, than do either the Department of Justice or the Congress.

Space Grabs its Spoils After Winning the War

Teets, Eberhart, and several uniformed officers of the Space Command boasted of the role space played in Afghanistan.  The Global Positioning System, particularly an augmented targeting program called GETS (GPS Enhanced Theatre Support), allowed for extremely precise bombing by fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan.   The Global Broadcast System, a special classified broadband communication system that rides on Navy UHF Follow-On satellites, was used heavily in the war.  A GBS satellite parked above the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia relayed everything from video feeds of Predator UAVs, to video downlinks for special operations soldiers on horseback in remote regions of western Afghanistan.

In fact, communications advances were as important as the NRO's vast array of intelligence satellites.  Eberhart said that while intelligence usually gains the most attention, the provision of broadband services to soldiers from space assets was just as important.  He said that "we in Space Command provided Tommy Franks seven times the bandwidth that was provided to Norman Schwarzkopf, and an individual soldier had 322 times the bandwidth that was available in Desert Storm."  Teets added that "in no time in our history has the capability of space been so pivotal."

The Defense Department is now considering an expansion of the UAV program to include autonomous vehicles that span the realm from the upper atmosphere to space.  Ron Sega, director of defense research and engineering, said that a new DoD program called the National Aerospace Initiative is exploring the miniaturization of UAV technology, as well as the revitalization of mini-satellite and micro-satellite concepts originally developed under the Star Wars-related Brilliant Eyes program.

Speakers from private commercial imaging companies Space Imaging and Digital Globe pointed out that photos from Ikanos, Spot Image, and QuickBird commercial satellites had already been used in war operations in Afghanistan.  Space Imaging chief executive John Copple said that the Pentagon did not buy commercial imaging products simply to keep them off the market, but because they formed a useful adjunct to NRO imagery.

Teets said that the highest priority for new NRO programs comes in the Space-Based Radar, a system which would not be ready for fielding until late in the decade, but which could provide moving target indication from space, a space-based equivalent of the JSTARS radar plane.  Another high priority for NRO is a program for "Transformational Communications," in which new concepts of net-centric Internet Protocol routing, packet-switching, and laser communications would be tested for both inter-satellite links, and for links between satellites and ground stations.  But the expansive plans and boasts from Kandahar did not mean that all has been smooth sailing for the nation's space intelligence agency.

As one example, a key element of the Missile Defense Agency is the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, which would play the dual role of replacing the aging Defense Support Program satellites in watching for missile launches, while also serving as an infared technical intelligence system.  The low-earth component of SBIRS, or SBIRS-Low, is proceeding in early development with few problems.

But SBIRS-High, a program of combined geosynchronous and elliptical satellites that is being developed at Lockheed-Martin, is facing severe cost overruns.   The escalation in costs from $1.8 billion to $4.5 billion for SBIRS-High has initiated a mandated Congressional review.  The largest overruns reportedly come in neither of the satellite systems, but in software developed at the SBIRS central ground station at Buckley AFB, Colorado.

Eberhart called SBIRS-High "the most serious tailwind I'm facing right now," and said that the NRO was conducting a review of possible satellite systems to replace SBIRS-High, if it proves infeasible to build.  He said that the "problems with SBIRS are not a question of whether the requirements are valid - the system would be invaluable for technical intelligence and battlefield characterization, and not just as a DSP replacement."

One source at the conference said that NRO's highest-profile program, the Future Imagery Architecture imaging satellite being developed by Boeing, is facing similar cost overruns to SBIRS, and may confront a similar review if the overruns exceed 25 percent of the initial budget.   A companion system for signals intelligence, the Integrated Overhead SIGINT Architecture or "Intruder" system, has faced serious problems in moving from IOSA-1 to IOSA-2.  But Teets said nothing about the status of FIA or IOSA at the conference.

When the Watchers Watch You ..

Since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, there has been growing concern about an erosion of the strict limitations that prevent NRO and the National Security Agency from snooping on U.S. citizens.  In fact, provisions of USA Patriot and several Justice Department directives have encouraged the sharing of information across intelligence agencies.  Several panels at the Space Symposium looked at how additional space assets could be used in support of "homeland defense."

Startup companies are as anxious to play as defense giants.  The existing commercial imaging companies did not complain at all when the Defense Department purchased all their images of Central Asia after the war in Afghanistan began.  Now, new companies developing micro-satellites, such as SpaceDev and MicroSat Systems, are looking to the NRO as a partner for some of their experimental satellite programs, where clusters of small satellites can be built for under $10 million per satellite.

Among the larger aerospace companies, Raytheon is the defense contractor with perhaps the biggest investment in what is called ISR, or Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance.  The company formed a cross-disciplinary group called "ISRnet" in recent months, and has already used the model of the outsourced intelligence-processing it performs at the Buckley Field intelligence base near Denver to set up a commercial secure Web hosting site adjacent to Buckley.

Raytheon has plenty of earthbound contracts related to post-Sept. 11 homeland defense.  It is developing explosive detectors for installation at all airports, and is working with the Justice Department and INS on a "Smart Border" project of fingerprint, facial, and iris scans for the Canadian and Mexican borders.  There also is a project to provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency with mobile command centers, using a satellite-based communication system that borrows technology from intelligence projects.

Hugo Poza, the vice president for homeland defense at Raytheon, said that many of the databases and search engines his company developed for U.S. intelligence agencies could be used to create a unified information repository for domestic law-enforcement and emergency-response teams.  The biggest failure of Sept. 11, he said, was not a lack of information about the terrorists responsible, but a failure to share information held by several agencies.  A unified database would help that, Poza said, but it must be created carefully to assuage privacy concerns regarding its use.

Conference attendees seemed anxious to provide whatever imaging or signals intelligence resources they could to either U.S. "warfighters" or domestic law-enforcement agencies, and concern about intelligence sharing always seemed to take a back seat to providing a unified front for the war on terror.  John Stammreich, vice president for homeland defense at Boeing, ironically said that the insurance companies who are worried about privacy indemnification often pose more concerns about civil liberties violations than do federal agents.  He said that one attorney told him, "just because you're holding an RFP (request for proposal), doesn't make it legal."

The Undisputed Boss

The few European attendees at Space Symposium were showing noticeable unease at the level of chutzpah coming from military space leaders.  Jeff Harris, a former NRO director who now is deputy of Lockheed's Space Systems Company, said that the U.S. now must act regularly in a pre-emptive and proactive way around the globe, using space-based resources for local skirmishes.  He said that the U.S. military should make all potential adversaries "unquestionably afraid of U.S. capabilities."

While O'Keefe of NASA made some nominal gestures toward internationalism, particularly for keeping a multinational role active in the International Space Station, Teets made sure not to talk of NATO or burden-sharing or anything else that smacked of multilateralism.  He said that the U.S. should be proud of its unilateral capabilities, and should exploit "our space supremacy, our space dominance, to achieve warfighting success."


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