WASHINGTON — U.S. Air Force officials said they are taming the cost growth issues that have plagued military space programs for years, but warned that sequestration budget cuts could undermine this newfound stability in the years immediately ahead.

Jamie Morin, acting undersecretary of the Air Force, said indiscriminate spending cuts are “introducing massive turmoil” into the space programs and that without a fix, “the damage is going to be unavoidable.” Sequestration “runs counter to absolutely every good measure of cost management principles,” he said April 15 during a press briefing here on the Air Force’s 2014 budget request for space programs.

Sequestration imposes a roughly 8 percent, across-the-board cut to Pentagon programs starting in 2013 and continuing for the next decade. The Air Force has yet to release a plan for absorbing the cuts this year, but officials warned that the danger lurks primarily for 2014 and beyond.

“Space today is in as good a place as it’s been for a long time,” Richard McKinney, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, said during the briefing.

Indeed, the Air Force’s major space programs are fully supported in the 2014 request, including launch vehicles and satellites for missile warning, communications and navigation. One nascent development program, a satellite system intended to keep tabs on objects in geostationary orbit, was terminated in the request.

But Morin said space surveillance is a key priority in the request, which includes $400 million for that activity, a $150 million increase from the current-year level. A significant portion, if not the bulk of those funds, are intended for an overhaul of the Space Fence, a network of ground based radars extending across the southern United States that tracks objects in orbit.

The upgraded Space Fence, which could feature a completely different configuration, is the subject of a competition between Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass. The contract award is overdue, and Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, warned April 9 that the award could be deferred indefinitely due to long-term budget considerations.

But Morin insisted that the Air Force is not wavering on its plans. ”Space Fence is as solid as any program can be in the fiscal environment we’re in,” he said.

The Space Situational Awareness budget account also includes money for a C-band tracking radar to be based in Australia, Morin said.

The Air Force currently tracks about 23,000 objects of “space junk” out of what is believed to be more than 500,000 items.

Morin said the budget request also reflects success in Air Force efforts to contain cost growth on its space programs through measures such as buying in quantity.

A quick analysis of the multiyear funding profiles suggests that the service indeed is reducing its cost projections on key programs, many of which are making — or have made — the transition from development to production.

Most dramatic among these is the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, whose rising costs have made it a lightning rod for critics in recent years. The Air Force’s EELV cost-cutting strategy features a block buy of as many as 36 vehicle cores from prime contractor United Launch Alliance of Denver and introducing competition into the program.

According to budget documents, the current projected cost of the EELV program for 2014-2017 is about $7.6 billion. At this time last year, the service was projecting an $8.5 billion cost over that time period, a difference of nearly $1 billion.

Similarly, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system of highly secure communications is expected to cost $3.28 billion during the next four years, or about $217 million less than was projected in 2012.

But there are notable |exceptions.

The Space Based Infrared System for missile warning, for example, is now expected to cost $3.3 billion during the next four years, which is slightly higher than what the Air Force was projecting last year. Although that program has turned the corner from a very rough development phase into production, a manufacturing gap between the fourth and fifth satellites in the series drove up costs.

Finally, the out-year projections reflect cost growth on the ground segment for the next-generation GPS 3 navigation satellites. The so-called Operational Control Segment was expected to cost $811 million for 2014-2017, but the projected price tag has since risen to nearly $1.2 billion, an increase of more than $300 million.



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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...