05/04/2011 04:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

C. A. 'Dutch' Ruppersberger Pushes For Billion-Dollar Missile Defense Satellite

By Colin Clark
Editor, AOL Defense

WASHINGTON -- A powerful House Democrat announced Wednesday that he will fight for a billion dollar-plus space tracking system for missile defense, despite the fact that Republican lawmakers have dropped funding for the system from the defense policy bill.

Rep. C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee who also sits on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said he will push for an additional $168 million in the defense policy bill to cover costs of the Precision Tracking and Surveillance Satellites (PTSS).

During a House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing today, Ruppersberger told his colleagues they were pursuing the "wrong course of action," pointing to China's strong support for space exploration and technologies as one reason to fund the satellite program.

The other reason the U.S. needs the satellites, he argued, is that the country must improve its knowledge of space objects and their locations, or "space situational awareness." After the Chinese used a missile to destroy one of their satellites in January 2007, President Bush made space situational awareness a top administration space priority.

The Missile Defense Agency aims to spend $1.34 billion on the Precision Tracking Space System between 2012 and 2016 and plans to build up to a dozen of the satellites. The knowledge Ruppersberger has gained on the intelligence committee drove him to support funding for the system, the congressman told AOL Defense after the hearing. He would not be more specific.

But Ruppersberger will likely face determined opposition from the subcommittee's leaders, who have already dropped the funding from their draft of the defense policy bill. The PTSS satellites, an aide said, will probably be much more expensive than planned. The system might easily cost $500 million for each satellite, and should the missile agency buy a dozen over time, that cost could rise to more than $6 billion.

An unmanned system known as Airborne Infrared also being pursued by the missile agency holds much promise and would be considerably cheaper, the aide said.

"This is a year of tough choices," the aide added, making clear that, while Ruppersberger may think the country needs the PTSS system, he may have to accept that it is too expensive in these tight fiscal times.

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