On National Security | Cloud of uncertainty over military space programs

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Dec. 18, 2017 issue.

24125719427_7374c90084_zThe U.S. military’s ambitious space agenda faces big unknowns. Budgets top the list. Other looming issues are political and organizational.

Despite a commitment by the U.S. Air Force to increase military space budgets by 20 percent, larger fiscal pressures may derail those plans. The GOP-dominated Congress and the Trump White House promised a big boost in military spending but so far that vision looks more like a mirage.

Congress last week managed to keep the government open with temporary funding until Dec. 22 while lawmakers figure out the next steps. A bipartisan budget agreement will be needed to determine the final defense funding level but there are still many unresolved issues.

If the GOP tax reform bill gets passed, analysts predict the government will be cash-strapped in the coming years even more so than it is now — a scenario that makes it unlikely that the nation can afford to spend more on the military or on costly space ventures.

Budget uncertainty could hurt space programs even more so than other military priorities because space projects compete for funding with aviation procurements. “All those space programs that were going to start ramping up can’t happen without a budget deal,” budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me last week. The next-generation satellite programs that the Air Force has been trying to push forward are not scheduled to start production any time soon but they still need funding to continue development and testing. “Absolutely there will be pressure on space programs,” he said.

Harrison recalled that when he spoke with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in October, he asked her about the service’s acquisition priorities. “She named a bunch of aircraft programs. There were no space progrxams in that list of priorities,” he said. “If push comes to shove and they don’t get all the resources they’re looking for, I think the Air Force is going to focus on air power.”

The Air Force “must-fund” items include the F-35A fighter jet, the B-21 bomber, the KC-46A tanker, the T-X trainer aircraft, a new intercontinental ballistic missile and a new nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile.

In space, it’s no so clear. The Air Force laid out plans to begin new programs for several satellite constellations, including a new missile-warning system, a modernized GPS, protected communications and wideband communications systems. If history is any guide, satellite procurements would be stretched out a few more years to free up funds for aviation.

Adding more uncertainty is last week’s enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, which reorganizes the Pentagon’s space responsibilities. The law shifts space-related organizational, training and equipping powers from the Air Force secretary and Air Force chief of staff to the Air Force Space Command. The current head of Space Command, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, said the reorganization will help set the conditions for the United States to get ahead of its enemies. The devil here will be in the details. The deputy secretary of defense has been assigned to lead the implementation of this law.

The NDAA also directed the Pentagon to study the possibility of deploying a space-based missile defense system, a complex and costly technology that the U.S. military has not pursued since the Reagan administration’s Star Wars initiative. The technological, fiscal and political implications of a space-based missile defense are significant. Arms control experts have warned such a system would be destabilizing.

The NDAA suggests the Pentagon should aim for a “boost phase” interceptor which is the hardest to do from space, said Harrison.

“You’ll need a massive constellation of satellites to do that. If you run the numbers, it’s probably over 1,000 satellites to be able to intercept ballistic missiles one at a time,” he said. “If a country launched two missiles from the same place at the same time you would need to double the size of your constellation.”

Congressional interest in a space-based missile defense, like Trump’s military buildup talk, illustrate today’s reality: Everyone has big lofty ambitions that are not supported by strategy, policy or budgets.

Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.