WASHINGTON — As the White House and Congress traded last-ditch proposals to avoid the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the U.S. Air Force unveiled a plan for coping with the steep reductions that includes delaying the purchase of missile warning satellites and scaling back space surveillance efforts.

In a PowerPoint presentation prepared for members of Congress, Air Force leaders said these and other moves, including deferring aircraft purchases and furloughing about 180,000 civilian workers, would save at least $12.4 billion. But the service stressed the changes would have a cost in “drastic” and “long-lasting impacts.”

Some of the largest space-related savings would come from delaying the purchase of the fifth and sixth satellites in the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) for missile warning, the presentation shows. Last summer, Congress authorized the Air Force to spend $3.9 billion starting this year to buy those satellites, called GEO-5 and GEO-6.

In September, the Air Force awarded SBIRS  prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., a contract modification worth $81.9 million to perform engineering work and order parts for the satellites.

Michael Friedman, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said delaying full-scale production of the satellites could drive up their cost. “Any significant delay in funding for any production program could threaten the stability of our industrial base, increase costs, prolong delivery schedules and ultimately weaken our national security posture,” he said in an email.

Another cost-saving measure in the Air Force’s sequestration plan is reducing the operating hours of ground-based radar sites for missile warning and space surveillance to eight hours a day. Currently those sites are staffed around the clock.

The proposed change would hamper missile defense efforts, the Air Force said.

Some observers expressed skepticism that the Air Force would actually go through with this measure, primarily due to its impact on the space surveillance mission. That mission has grown in importance due to the proliferation of satellites and potentially harmful debris in Earth orbit.

Brian Weeden, a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, said it is hard to read too much into the Air Force presentation due to its brevity. The impact depends on which space surveillance sites are affected, he said.

“There’s a lot of overlapping coverage for tracking satellites in the Northern Hemisphere because of all the missile warning radars, so if a few of them went to limited duty cycles that probably wouldn’t have a significant impact,” Weeden said via email. “But there are a few radars that have specialized capabilities or are in key locations, such as radars at the Reagan National Test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific or Shemya in the Aleutian islands, and limiting the availability of those radars could have a significant impact. Depending on which radar it is, it could mean that it’s more difficult to track smaller objects in space or perhaps take longer to track newly launched objects from certain locations.”

Weeden said continuous surveillance of the orbital environment is needed “to maintain an accurate catalog and protect active satellites from collisions and other threats.”

The Air Force contingency plan also called for spending 75 percent less to maintain the aging Defense Satellite Communications System, a constellation of legacy satellites serving military forces. Air Force leaders noted the reduction would hurt military communications worldwide.

The Air Force presentation drew a quick response from U.S. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, who said in a press release Feb. 6 he is worried about the cost sequestration would have for taxpayers. “The draft proposal from the Air Force outlining sequestration cuts is highly troubling news,” Turner said. “Sequestration will affect mission readiness and our deployed personnel around the globe. Civilian furloughs will delay systems testing — ultimately increasing end costs to the taxpayer and the amount of time it takes to deliver equipment to our warfighters.”

Sequestration is scheduled to take effect March 1 barring an agreement between Congress and the White House on a plan to bring the ballooning U.S. deficit under control. The Pentagon would absorb an across-the-board spending cut of more than $500 billion during the next decade if sequestration is not averted.

Washington leaders are scrambling to find a solution before the sequestration cuts become a reality.

In a speech Feb. 5, U.S. President Barack Obama called on Congress to avoid sequestration by agreeing to a more modest combination of spending cuts and tax reforms.

Members of Congress have offered their own solutions.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote Obama Feb. 4 urging the president to submit a plan to Congress to prevent sequestration. In addition, he proposed an amendment to budget legislation introduced in the House Feb. 1 that would require the president to incorporate recommendations from the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission in his 2014 budget request. That plan, among other measures, includes freezing federal salaries for three years.

Meanwhile, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reintroduced legislation Feb. 6 that they say would reclaim the savings that sequestration otherwise would provide by allowing federal departments to hire one employee only after three others had left.

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...