By Marion C. Blakey
President and CEO of the U.S Aerospace. Industries Association
In an Afghan battlefield, U.S. warfighters navigate through darkness and around jagged cliffs with GPS guidance. They communicate via satellite in the vast remoteness. Overhead sensors provide critical intelligence on enemies that may be lurking just mountaintops away.
As this real-life account from Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 bestseller, Lone Survivor, clearly demonstrates, our nation’s warriors depend on national security space technology. But critical space capabilities, like those highlighted in Luttrell’s book, will become less feasible if recent cuts in the House Defense Appropriations bill go forward.
To help meet the warfighter’s growing needs, the U.S. government and industry have been working around the clock to upgrade and strengthen these vital technologies. From September 2010 through April 2011, the National Reconnaissance Office – the U.S. agency responsible for intelligence satellites – conducted an impressive series of six successful launches. The U.S. Air Force is also placing new capabilities into orbit, from GPS satellites to a first-ever Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite in 2010 to a brand new Space-Based Infrared System missile warning satellite in 2011.
Space technologies provide our warriors an astounding edge over their opponents. At a recent hearing before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, the principal deputy director of the NRO provided an example of how NRO systems were used in the U.S. Central Command to pinpoint and defeat an impending ambush on coalition troops. Up to 20 insurgents were neutralized and coalition lives were saved.
On June 29, 2011, an Operationally Responsive Space “ORS-1” satellite successfully launched into orbit from Wallops Island, Va. Designed to improve battlespace awareness for the warfighter and meet U.S. Central Command mission needs, the ORS-1 satellite was dedicated to the Medal of Honor recipients from the U.S. Central Command, including Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Navy SEAL who lost his life fighting alongside Marcus Luttrell.
GPS space technology is helping medical evacuation companies locate injured service members and provide them with life-saving medical attention. Advanced military communications satellites control the growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles used in overseas operations. Military communications satellites also allow secure links to soldiers on the ground and to military commanders. Modernization efforts will ensure this capability is able to meet the changing technology needs of the 21st Century.
Yet when the Defense Appropriations bill was introduced on the House floor in June, it contained significant cuts to space of nearly $600 million, not including classified programs. Mission areas that experienced cuts included satellite communications; access to space; positioning, navigation and timing; environmental monitoring; space situational awareness; and ORS support to the warfighter. Overall research and development funding, vital to the production of next-generation technologies, was reduced by $2 billion.
The successes of today’s military using space technology might seem to show that further investment isn’t as important. However, that would be a mistake—the successes of today are based on investments in the past. Because space technology is highly complex, one cannot simply stop or delay system development without seriously impacting the cost, schedule or ability to field future systems. The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2012 request was already a modest one for national security space; its 3 percent increase over the prior year’s budget was small considering the significant cuts to major space development programs over the past two years. In today’s economic climate, it makes sense to look for places where we can tighten our belt. But cuts of this magnitude in the House Defense Appropriations bill risk the loss of skilled workforce and the capability to design and build the space assets on which our national security community depends.
Unfortunately, Luttrell’s account of the 2005 Navy SEAL operation ends in tragedy. Without access to the modern space technology either recently deployed or currently under development, the SEAL’s satellite links go down and they are unable to establish communication with their commanders just as the team is overwhelmed by a larger Taliban force. Special operators are cut off from reinforcements, without a clear picture of the battlefield and their enemy. What results is the worst loss of life in U.S. Navy SEAL history with only Luttrell surviving to tell the story.
One has to ask: Could such loss be avoided in the future? And, in the face of proposed budget cuts: Will we commit to providing the space technologies needed by our military and intelligence community?