Space: May 16, 2000

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The Pentagon is planning a new generation of military satellites which will take new missions into space. The first new mission on the list is to transfer the airborne early warning and control mission (now managed by E-2C Hawkeye and E-3A AWACS planes) to space. This would save the expense of another generation of radar planes and would outrun efforts by potential enemies to destroy these key platforms. Another potential new mission is using space-based radars to track ground targets (something now done by JSTARS aircraft). The Pentagon estimates that satellites for this mission could be in place by 2010 (sooner with extra funding), faster than the higher priority AWACS mission. Because of the technical challenges (aircraft move faster, and in more dimensions, than ground vehicles) an AWACS capability will not be ready until 2015. Another aspect of the new satellites will be a multi-mission capability. Most military satellites are now single-mission spacecraft, which do only one thing. New satellites may perform several jobs, although orbital position may limit the choices, or perhaps not. New sensor, antenna, and processing technology may allow spacecraft to take on missions from orbits where those missions could not have been performed previously. The new GPS-3 satellites, for example, may include an electronic intercept capability. The key point here is cost. If two satellites with different missions could be combined, the resulting single satellite might need only one of some elements, reducing total weight (and hence cost). The first of the next generation of spy satellites, designated Future Imagery Architecture, are due in orbit by 2005. This will include photographic and radar-imaging satellites. The problem is that there is not enough money for ground receivers to satisfy Congressional demands that all of the military units, branches, and theaters benefit from the new satellites. Congress wants to reduce the number of satellites to buy more ground stations, a move the Pentagon "absolutely opposes" since the planned number of satellites is needed to get the required coverage and the existing ground stations can be moved to crisis areas. To help avoid a confrontation, the Pentagon found another $1 billion and the CIA ponied up another $500 million to buy additional ground stations. --Stephen V Cole

 


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