Thompson Files: Don't scrap the TSAT

By LOREN B. THOMPSON   |   Oct. 7, 2008 at 12:06 PM
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ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Over the last eight years America's military has been transformed. Unfortunately, it has been transformed as much by the actions of the nation's adversaries as by the vision of change that President George W. Bush's Pentagon team advanced.

Who could have imagined on the day Bush was elected that his presidency would begin with the biggest terrorist attack in history? That the joint force would spend most of his time in office waging a multi-front counterinsurgency campaign in Asia? And that the U.S. Department of Defense would finish the Bush years pouring money into an urgent initiative aimed at keeping intruders out of its vulnerable information networks? No doubt about it, the military has been transformed -- but not in the way many of the reform advocates had hoped.

Bush and his lieutenants are now so discredited that few pundits still recall the administration predicted such threats would one day arise. The whole point of investing in next-generation technologies during the Bush era was to prepare the joint force for the "asymmetric" challenges of the future.

Because those threats arrived sooner than Bush's advisers anticipated, not many people noticed that the administration kept up the investment even as the political system's attention turned to Afghanistan and Iraq. But it did. Indeed, its determination to not let military transformation be eclipsed by more pressing concerns is one reason why, under Bush, U.S. defense outlays have risen to nearly half of the global total.

As a result, Bush is leaving a gift for his successor amid the wreckage of his administration. It is a series of networking initiatives such as the Joint Tactical Radio System and the Army's Future Combat Systems that will enable America's military to regain the initiative in global security if President Barack Obama or President John McCain has the good sense to appreciate what he has inherited.

These programs are not really Republican initiatives. They are grounded in a bipartisan consensus about military change and technological ferment that predated Bush's time in office, and that clearly is reflected in the national security pronouncements of both presidential candidates. It owes its origins as much to former Defense Secretaries William Perry and Les Aspin as Donald Rumsfeld, and the passage of time has not diminished its value.

Foremost among these visionary initiatives is Transformational Satellite Communications, better known as TSAT -- "Tee-Sat." TSAT is a constellation of five communications satellites linked to tens of thousands of portable receivers that would deliver Internet-like connectivity to every U.S. war fighter in the world -- flexibly and securely, no matter where they are and what their circumstances.

Nothing like TSAT exists today in the joint force. It would be the first military communications satellite that fully exploits "Internet Protocol" technology, the software and standards that enable the Internet to turn thousands of otherwise disconnected networks into a single unified Web. Because of this technology, TSAT will offer war fighters greatly improved transmission capacity, access, versatility and protection. In wartime, it would make them more likely to survive -- and more likely to win.

In particular, TSAT will make it easier for troops on the move to communicate with the rest of the joint force and to receive intelligence in a timely fashion from remote reconnaissance systems such as unmanned aircraft.

But because TSAT is so different from what has gone before, some people do not understand it. They want to turn it into a bill-payer for more prosaic needs, in much the same way that bureaucrats attempted to kill the Global Positioning System a generation ago. That impulse needs to be resisted by the next administration, because TSAT is the most important technology initiative the joint force is pursuing, a breakthrough that enables all the other advances needed to win future wars.


(Loren B. Thompson is chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)

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