It's a spook fantasy: an all-seeing, always-on, rain-or-shine constellation of satellites, able to keep track of every plane, truck, and person below."We need to know something about everything all the time," undersecretary of defense for intelligence Stephen Cambone told a conference last year. "We need an illuminator, throwing into relief all the pictures and activities on the Earth's surface. And then we need to be able to switch on the spotlight, or alert other systems, to dive deep."For years, U.S. intelligence and defense officials have been pouring money into such a system, the Space Based Radar, or SBR. The goal was to have the satellite array up and running by 2012.Now, Congress is telling the Pentagon to go back to the drawing board. The House Appropriations Committee has cut the Air Forces 2005 budget request for Space Based Radar from $327 million to $75 million, ISR Journal notes. Instead of being treated as a project that's about to be built, the committee added, SBR should be approached as a research and development effort."When weighed against military operations in Iraq and the ongoing war against terrorism, the SBR program 'simply cannot be afforded,'" the magazine quote the committee as saying.
The Air Force has yet to settle on many of the technical details of the proposed radar satellite constellation such as the size of the spacecraft and the orbits they would use. Very preliminary estimates for budget planning call for nine satellites in low Earth orbit.Air Force officials estimate that a constellation of that size could cost at least $30 billion. That figure is more than the Air Forces combined budget for nearly all of its other satellite efforts with the exception of the development of the laser-linked Transformational Communications satellitesEven that figure may not show the true price tag of the satellites, given the Air Forces difficulty in forecasting the cost of its space programs, the committee stated. One example is the troubled Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High missile warning program, which is now expected to cost 450 percent more than the Air Force estimated when it was at about the same point of development as the Space Based Radar system is now.