Senate defense bill proposes big funding boost for military LEO constellation

by
The SASC bill adds $110 million to the Blackjack project, led by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.

WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to add $110 million to the defense budget to speed up the development of a low Earth orbit constellation of military satellites.

The project, named Blackjack, is led by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. The Air Force views this program as a key vehicle to bring cutting-edge commercial space technology into the military. The Pentagon in fiscal year 2019 requested $15 million for the program. The Air Force additionally sought $50 million for Blackjack as part of its “unfunded requirements” list that the military services submit to Congress every year.

The SASC is going even further. “The committee notes that funding for a Blackjack on-orbit demonstration is the Air Force’s highest unfunded priority,” said the report that accompanies the committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act — named the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.

“The committee believes that the successful demonstration of a proliferated constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit would have profound implications for the resiliency and survivability of critical space missions,” the report said.

The $110 million increase would give Blackjack $125 million to accelerate an on-orbit demonstration of a military missile warning constellation embedded within a commercial LEO mega-constellation and a space-cloud network infrastructure.

The committee also directs the Air Force and DARPA to work with the Missile Defense Agency to study whether the LEO constellation has the “potential for meeting MDA’s space-based requirements.” In a separate provision, the committee requires MDA to develop a persistent space-based sensor architecture “capable of supporting the ballistic missile defense system” and says the architecture must be compatible with DARPA efforts on space-based sensors for missile defense.

DARPA describes the Blackjack program as an “architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks.”

A sense of urgency to modernize military systems is a theme that runs through the SASC report. “The array of national security threats facing the United States is more complex and diverse than at any time since World War II,” the committee stated. “The strategic environment has not been this competitive since the Cold War. Simply put, America no longer enjoys the comparative edge it once had over its competitors and adversaries.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the SASC bill Wednesday night, and the Senate is set to begin debate on the defense policy legislation next week.