WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is mulling the development of a small satellite to augment its GPS navigation constellation, but whether the project will move forward is unclear due to budget uncertainty, according to a senior service official.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the small satellite is needed for better coverage in hard-to-reach areas like urban canyons. Unlike current and future GPS satellites, which also carry nuclear explosion detection devices, the augmentation craft would be equipped solely with a navigation payload.

Speaking at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here, a tape of which was made available to SpaceNews, Shelton said the current GPS constellation is healthy and robust, consisting of several more than the 24 satellites needed for global coverage. In fact, he said, the Air Force two years ago “redeployed” the constellation to optimize coverage.

“We’ve done about all we can do — in fact we’ve done more than we’re supposed to do in terms of numbers of satellites,” Shelton said. “That’s why it’s important to look at this cheaper little navigation-only satellite. It is a small satellite that would provide augmentation should we need it.”

Shelton said such a satellite is only being studied at the moment but could be launched in three or four years. He noted, however, that the budgetary environment is making it extremely difficult to plan for that and other programs under his purview, which includes space and cyberspace.

The Defense Department, whose budgets are leveling off after a decade of growth, is facing a massive spending cut starting in March unless U.S. President Barack Obama and the Congress can come to agreement on a strategy for reducing the nation’s deficit. On top of that, Shelton and others have noted, the Pentagon, like all other federal agencies, is operating at 2012 funding levels under a six-month continuing resolution set to expire at the end of March.

There appears to be a strong possibility that the continuing resolution will be extended for the remainder of the fiscal year, and the White House has fallen behind schedule in preparing its 2014 budget request. Traditionally, the federal budget request is sent to Congress in February, but that now appears unlikely.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in 36 and a half years in the business — this is the worst circumstances I’ve ever seen,” Shelton said. “There are pressures that are on all of us now to try to make decisions without good information — and it is the national security of the nation we’re talking about here.”

Shelton said he and his staff are working hard to protect space and cyberspace capabilities, calling them indispensable to U.S. military operations. “In terms of protecting our investment areas, all of our constellations will have to be protected,” he said. “This is foundational capability. It doesn’t matter what size the United States military becomes; we count on space and cyber capabilities to underpin the force.”

One program he singled out for protecting is a planned upgrade to the Joint Space Operations Center (Jspoc) at Vandenberg Air Force, Calif., which manages U.S. military space activities. “Everything we do starts with what happens at the Jspoc; [it] is way overdue for modernization — way overdue,” he said. “We’ve got a mainframe computer running our space surveillance business and our space situational awareness business and it hasn’t had a major software upgrade since 1994.”

Shelton said his current space programs are performing well, but acknowledged some recent cost growth on the GPS 3 and Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning programs. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is prime contractor on both programs.

The issue with SBIRS was a production break between the third and fourth satellites and some component quality issues that required substantial rework on the hardware. Costs have risen on the GPS 3 program, primarily because of delays with the primary navigation payload, which is being supplied by ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y.

Shelton believes the contractor has both issues under control.

Shelton also said the Air Force might never get to the bottom of a Delta 4 rocket-engine anomaly that occurred during an otherwise successful GPS satellite launch in October. For reasons that remain unknown, the rocket’s RL-10 upper-stage engine developed a fuel leak in its thrust chamber and underperformed, even though the satellite was able to reach its proper orbit.

The anomaly has delayed several upcoming launches, including that of an Air Force Wideband Global Satcom communications satellite, which is now scheduled for March 28.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...