Editorial | Stability for U.S. Military Space

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There were no major surprises in the U.S. federal funding request for military space programs in 2014, and that’s both good and bad news.

Because the Defense Department’s major satellite programs are absolutely essential to national, and arguably global, security, it would have been a big surprise — a shock, actually — had the White House seen fit to curtail them in any way. As U.S. military officials have noted for years, but especially of late, missile warning, communications, launch and navigation are nonnegotiable capabilities, even in the most austere of fiscal environments.

Given that the days of unrestrained growth in U.S. defense spending are over for now — even if current conditions don’t necessarily fit the definition of austere — it is equally unsurprising that the White House chose to terminate efforts to field new space-based capabilities such as missile tracking and geostationary-orbit surveillance.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Precision Tracking Space System, designed to track missiles as they coast through space during the midcourse portion of flight, was the big sitting duck in the Pentagon’s unclassified space portfolio. The program has existed for more than two decades in various incarnations, each carrying a likely price tag in the tens of billions of dollars. The Pentagon spent well over $1 billion on flight experiments, one of which is being tested on orbit today, and was working on another prototype satellite that had finally gained support from an initially skeptical Congress. But independent reports had questioned the planned investment, saying lower-cost options might be available, and lawmakers had directed the Missile Defense Agency to examine possible alternatives.

Meanwhile, the Space Based Space Surveillance follow-on satellite, designed to keep tabs on objects in the geostationary-orbit arc 36,000 kilometers above the equator, was in large part a victim of runaway cost growth on its predecessor, currently in operation. In light of that cost growth, and as it sought to offset cost growth on other programs, the Pentagon had deferred development of the follow-on satellite, effectively branding it — fairly or not — as a low priority and thus inviting the ax.

Considering the circumstances, there was no solid basis for expecting to see either program funded in the 2014 request. What’s unfortunate is there was evidence of progress on both: The two experimental missile tracking satellites launched in 2009 have demonstrated the potential to improve the range and effectiveness of regional interceptors, while Air Force officials, who are concerned about potential threats to satellites in geostationary orbit, say they now have the recipe for a lower-cost space surveillance satellite.

More broadly, these are the types of capabilities that, once available, the military often finds it cannot do without. GPS is a classic example: Once an experimental program with shaky political support, the satellite navigation service is now fully ingrained in military and even civilian activities. One wonders what a nascent GPS program’s chances would have been in the current climate.

But with the Pentagon looking to cut spending wherever it can, a better measure of the proposed military space budget is whether it would harm the status quo, and on this count things look reasonably good. Not only is the Air Force seeking to keep the production lines humming for programs like the Space Based Infrared System missile warning system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites — not that it had much choice in the matter — it is pressing ahead with long-overdue upgrades to ground-based systems for space traffic management and space surveillance. In the wake of the budget’s April 10 release, for example, the Air Force reaffirmed support for the planned replacement for the Space Fence network of space-surveillance radars, an effort that Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, had just days earlier warned was facing an uncertain future.

Also encouraging is the amount of hosted payload-related activity in the Air Force budget request, even if there are no concrete missions in the hopper. The request serves as an indication of the Air Force’s interest in novel approaches to deploying space capabilities, notwithstanding the larger question of how it might overhaul its existing constellation architectures without compromising capabilities under a flat budget ceiling.

The wild card in all of this continues to be sequestration, which despite being the law of the land is all but ignored in the 2014 budget request. The programmatic impact of sequestration’s funding cuts in 2013 is still unknown — or at least unpublicized — as the Air Force scrambles to accommodate them in a spending plan for the remainder of the year. But Air Force officials warn that sequestration, if not somehow defused between now and fiscal year 2014, threatens to upend the space-program stability they seek to preserve in the request. In other words, there might soon come a time when the straight status quo is viewed unambiguously as the happier times of yesteryear.