Designed to intercept enemy ballistic missiles, the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) would have cost taxpayers $28 billion instead of the original price tag estimate of $10 billion over 20 years. After a review of the proposal found major flaws that would have rendered the program useless, the government scrapped the project after wasting more than $230 million on false promises from the defense industry.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times investigation, the Obama administration and Congress began funding PTSS in 2009. The initial plan entailed launching nine to 12 satellites into orbit over the equator to detect missile launches and track warheads in flight. Intended to protect the U.S. from nuclear attacks, the program was shutdown four years later without sending a single satellite into orbit.
“It’s an example of what can go wrong in defense procurement: Huge amounts of money just pissed away on things that should never have advanced beyond a study,” said David Barton, a physicist and radar engineer who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed U.S. missile-defense programs, including PTSS.
Instead of guarding U.S. citizens against missile attacks from hostile countries including Iran and North Korea, PTSS would have been unable to detect Arctic flight path trajectories, which those countries would most likely deploy against the continental U.S. Initially intending to only launch nine to 12 satellites into orbit, PTSS would have required at least 24 satellites over the Northern Hemisphere to close those blindspots. Besides nearly tripling the cost of the initial estimate, advocates for PTSS falsely claimed that its advanced infrared sensors could continuously track ballistic missiles when in reality the satellites would have been unable to distinguish between decoys and live warheads.
Although Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, then-director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, had previously challenged impractical defense programs, O’Reilly sided with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon to secure the contract and begin funding the ill-fated project. During a House Armed Services subcommittee on May 5, 2011, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger urged his fellow members not to eliminate funding for PTSS. Instead of bothering to test the competency of PTSS or the veracity of its far-fetched claims, Ruppersberger simply wanted to funnel the money into his home state of Maryland, where the John Hopkins lab and several defense contractors salivated over the concept of receiving billions of taxpayer dollars.
In 2011, a panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences determined that PTSS was largely redundant due to the fact that current satellites and tracking systems can already do most tasks that PTSS claimed it was capable of accomplishing. They also estimated the actual price of the program would have cost taxpayers between $24 billion and $28 billion, instead of the estimated price of $10 billion over 20 years. Compared to other alternative, PTSS was found both ridiculously expensive and ineffective.
Although Congress approved another year of funding, PTSS was officially killed off on October 1, 2013, after spending $231 million on the doomed program. Over the past decade, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has wasted more than $10 billion in failed projects. The ill-fated Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX), Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and Multiple Kill Vehicle cost the agency $2.2 billion, $5.3 billion, $1.7 billion, and $700 million respectively. Instead of blindly swallowing the empty promises of voracious defense contractors, perhaps Congress and the Obama administration should have vetted these programs before handing over taxpayer money.