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Military Satellite Supporter, Critic Draw Line in Sand

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” This old proverb is especially true in today’s era of instantaneous mass communications.

It is with great frustration, then, that I find myself lacing up my boots to challenge a number of wildly inaccurate assertions published by the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 22 (“U.S. to Send Ton of Sand Into Space”) and sent around the world on the L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service.

The story in question quoted a number of unnamed sources professing that the Air Force is planning to launch “2,000 pounds of sand” into orbit on a Milstar communications satellite at a cost to the taxpayers of "$70 million.”

First, the Air Force has no plans to launch 2,000 pounds of sand into space as ballast on a Milstar satellite. The ballast is entirely aluminum, consisting of model replacements for an electronics payload that is no longer needed. Furthermore, the aluminum is necessary to ensure balance for the satellite to work properly on orbit, and it weighs only 878 pounds.

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Second, the addition of the ballast adds nothing to the cost of the launch. The article wrongly takes the cost of the rocket and its fuel, divides by the weight of the satellite and multiplies by the weight of the ballast to conclude that it will cost an additional $70 million to send the ballast into space.

The logic here is seriously flawed. It is comparable to saying: “My car weighs 2,000 pounds; it cost $20,000. That equates to $10 per pound. Therefore, if I weighed 200 pounds, it would cost me an additional $2,000 every time I drove to the grocery store.”

The fact of the matter is that the launch of the satellite will cost exactly the same amount with or without the ballast.

Third, the uninstalled payload that necessitated the ballast was built, fully tested and successfully installed on our first satellite. It was left off the second satellite because it was no longer needed in the post-Cold War era.

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This saves taxpayers money. But instead of highlighting--or even mentioning--the cost savings, the article characterizes it as a failure, stating that it “was never completed,” it was removed because of “undisclosed problems” and that “it remains unclear what problems caused it to be removed.”

Finally, the article holds up the entire Milstar satellite system like a punching bag and allows it to be assailed, unchallenged, by Mr. John Pike, a longtime Milstar critic. Pike expresses his opinion that the system is “virtually useless” with “limited communications capacity.”

We could have explained Milstar’s criticality to providing secure, mobile, jam-proof, detection-proof communications to tomorrow’s battlefield soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Calling Milstar a "$70-million sandbox” and saying that voices using the system sound “like Donald Duck” are amusing and entertaining in peacetime, and they make for fun reading and catchy headlines. But I guarantee you there is nothing amusing or entertaining about our sons and daughters being placed in the line of fire without secure communications next time they’re sent into harm’s way.

Brig. Gen.

LEONARD KWIATKOWSKI

Los Angeles Air Force Base

Kwiatkowski is program director of the Military Satellite Communications Joint Program Office. *

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*

As a former Defense Department official involved in military space systems, I was surprised and disturbed to read your Dec. 22 article about the U.S. sending a ton of sand into space aboard a Milstar communications satellite. While our Air Force space champions in El Segundo have crafted some inventive solutions to problems posed in nearly three decades of operating military satellites, this idea defies all logic and raises serious questions about the management of the program, its operational utility and future.

On its own merit, Milstar is an ingenious system fashioned to provide fail-safe communications between our nuclear-capable forces and the President and other decision-makers in Washington during a crisis or nuclear exchange.

The idea held merit in the late ‘70s when Milstar was born of necessity. Our war-fighting communications satellites were then and still are vulnerable to a host of threats, ranging from jamming to eavesdropping to all-out failure by a determined Russian attack.

Milstar made sense during the Reagan Administration given these threats, and the Pentagon wisely pushed for its development knowing it would pose a major engineering challenge and cost billions of dollars to complete and field.

However, over the last 10 years, Milstar has been plagued by huge cost overruns, technical setbacks and myriad engineering changes to include a design shift when it was decided to remove Milstar from the shuttle launch lineup to the more reliable Titan launch vehicle. The first satellite was to have been launched several years ago.

Originally designed to provide multiple capabilities to include relay of high-classified intelligence data between reconnaissance satellites and ground stations, it now seems that electronic kit may have been removed from the satellite, which has a total weight of 5,000 pounds. A one-ton loss can only be categorized as major.

Because it takes years to fit a replacement system on a satellite so complex as Milstar, it seems the only reasonable solution was to add sand as ballast and pray that no one, including the general public, would be the wiser.

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The race by program officials to get the first Milstar system in operation and to prove its value is no excuse from saving an engineering and financial disaster from the budget-cutting knife. The Air Force’s proposal gives new meaning to the word sandbagging .

While I have long been an advocate of military space systems, it makes no sense in this post-Cold War era to spend billions of dollars on a space system that is so problematic.

If it is our national policy to solely preserve jobs and the defense industrial base, then perhaps creation of systems such as Milstar, the B-2 bomber and similar strategic programs should be preserved. Providing for the nation’s security is Job One for the federal government, but subsidizing secret projects for the sake of saving face is shameful.

JAMES B. SCHULTZ

Moorpark

Schultz was special assistant to the commander at the Air Force Space Division, El Segundo, from January, 1976, to September, 1982.


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