U.S. Lawmakers Add $23M for SBIRS, Fund Responsive Space

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WASHINGTON — Amid widespread budget uncertainty, the U.S. Congress funded several key military space programs at or near the president’s requested levels in a new spending plan for the remainder of the fiscal year, and even boosted support for some activities.

Among the programs slated to receive more funding than U.S. President Barack Obama requested back in February 2012 are the U.S. Air Force’s new missile warning system and the ground segment for the next generation of GPS navigation satellites. Lawmakers also funded an office dedicated to fielding quick-reaction space capabilities, an activity that the Pentagon had marked for termination.

Obama signed the Defense Appropriations Act of 2013 into law March 26. The measure was part of a larger spending package designed to stave off a government shutdown that otherwise would have occurred at the end of March.

All of the programs funded in the defense bill are subject to the automatic, across-the-board budget cut known as sequestration, which is expected to be about 9 percent.

The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning program is the recipient of one of the biggest net increases over the president’s request. As part of a series of puts and takes on the program, lawmakers added $40 million to expand the ground system that processes data from SBIRS sensors hosted by satellites in highly elliptical orbit, and $40 million to accelerate utilization of data from the dedicated satellite’s staring sensors.

Each dedicated SBIRS satellite operating in geosynchronous orbit has a scanning sensor that covers large swaths of territory and a staring sensor that focuses on a smaller area of interest to provide near-immediate detection of missile launches. The Air Force acknowledged last year that the utilization of data from the staring sensors would be deferred due to funding shortfalls.

In the new law, Congress also more clearly delineated funding for the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which is used to launch the vast majority of U.S. national security satellites. The EELV budget is now divided into two line items: one covering the hardware and services associated with individual launches, which is funded at about $800 million, and one for infrastructure and various other activities, which received about $654 million.

The move better reflects the contracting arrangement EELV prime contractor United Launch Alliance of Denver has with the Air Force, and is designed to increase visibility into the program’s finances, according to bill language. EELV’s rising costs have drawn heavy congressional scrutiny in recent years, and the Pentagon has acknowledged that the program’s complicated contracting arrangements — one contract for launch services, one for infrastructure and other activities — has made it difficult to identify potential cost savings.

The new law provides $105 million for the Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space Office, which the service had marked for closure this year. Located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., the office is dedicated to developing and fielding space capabilities quickly in response to emerging military needs.

Similarly, lawmakers rejected an Air Force bid to close out the long-running Space Test Program, which finds rides to space for promising technologies and experiments developed across the Department of Defense. The Air Force requested $10 million for closeout activities; Congress provided $45 million.

This year’s final defense budget also includes $249 million for Space Situational Awareness, most of which appears to be intended for an overhaul of a ground-based space surveillance radar network known as the space fence. The Pentagon had asked for $253 million for the project in 2013.

The bill did not specify a total funding level for the space fence. According to congressional budget documents, however, lawmakers reduced the Pentagon’s request for the upgrade by $37 million, citing a delay in the prime contract award.

Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., submitted competing final proposals for the space fence upgrade in November 2012. The Air Force was expected to award a contract for the work in early 2013.

The budget also includes $350 million for the operational control segment for the next-generation GPS 3 satellites slated to begin launching around 2014. The Air Force requested $371 million.

Lawmakers diverted $50 million that was intended for certain development activities that they said are not needed in 2013 and directed it toward ensuring that the ground system is ready for the initial satellite launches. The lawmakers also trimmed $21 million that was allocated for program support from federally funded research and development centers.