U.S. plans to kill program to track objects from space

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 15, 2008 7:44pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government plans to kill a beleaguered multibillion-dollar satellite program to track moving targets from space, a project championed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, three defense officials and an industry source said on Friday.

The Space Radar program has run into major resistance in Congress in recent years, with lawmakers citing cost and technology concerns about a nine-satellite program that the Air Force initially envisioned to cost $34 billion through 2025, according to globalsecurity.org.

Funding for Space Radar, aimed at giving the military an "eye in the sky" view through all kinds of weather, has already shriveled in recent years and its timeline has been stretched, but now the program in its current form appears doomed.

The Air Force spent $183 million on the program in fiscal year 2007, but zeroed out its budget in 2008 and 2009, asking the Pentagon's National Reconnaissance Office to pay for continued development.

NRO funding is classified but one source said the program received $100 million in fiscal 2008 that ends September 30.

"The NRO plans to remove funding for the program," said a defense official who asked not to be named.

Lockheed Martin Corp and Northrop Grumman Corp are each leading teams bidding for the program. Northrop is supplying the radar for both teams.

Both teams have been working on small-scale concept studies to reduce risks and advance the technology needed for the program. No satellites were ever launched.

Air Force and NRO officials declined to comment.

Lockheed said it had not been notified of any change to the program. Northrop had no immediate comment.

"There are times when it's better to walk away and start over," said a second senior defense official who asked not to be named. He said the U.S. military would clearly still seek to develop space-based radar capabilities in the future.

"The problem is that we've frittered away five or six years," the official added. "It's a crying shame."

A third defense official agreed that the intelligence and military communities remained keenly interested in developing the ability to track moving objects from space, and said a separate effort could be launched.

Space Radar was one of two large military space projects backed by Rumsfeld as vehicles to transform the U.S. military. The Air Force cut about $4 billion in funding from the other program, the Transformational Communications Satellite (TSAT) system over the next five years.

Both programs had already faced a "huge uphill battle" for funding, and those pressures were bound to get worse under the next White House administration, regardless of which party wins, given mounting budgetary pressures, one of the officials said.

"The fact that both of these initiatives from the Rumsfeld years are being cut tells you that the Rumsfeld agenda is rapidly ebbing away," said Loren Thompson, senior analyst with the private Lexington Institute, who said he had also heard from government sources about the plan to kill the program.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Gary Hill)

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