Senate Bill Shows Sharp Division on Future of U.S. Missile Defense

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House and Senate remain divided over the future of the missile defense program, a schism that was in evidence Aug. 1 after the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its defense spending bill for 2014.

Senate appropriators suggested spending $891 million on the nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, approximately $142 million less than U.S. President Barack Obama requested. In contrast, when the House passed its version of the defense spending bill in July, members suggested spending $1.2 billion on the nation’s primary territorial shield and added $107 million to begin buying more than a dozen upgraded interceptors.

The Senate’s bill, which largely finalizes the parameters for upcoming funding debates by a conference committee, also assures a majority of U.S. military space programs will be funded at or below the president’s request. This assumes that the House and Senate are able to come to terms on the measure before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal year 2014.

The Senate recommends spending $5 billion on major military space programs, which is roughly the same as the House recommended.

But the two sides are far apart on missile defense.

In a July hearing, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, questioned whether the GMD could realistically protect the nation from incoming ballistic missile attacks. The hearing was held just days after a failed GMD intercept test, prompting calls from prominent Republicans in both the House and Senate for more testing of the system.

Amid continued high tensions with North Korea and Iran, House Republicans have also championed a third GMD interceptor site on U.S. territory, and the House defense spending bill recommends providing $70 million for that purpose. Currently there are two sites: Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Senate bill does not contain money for the third site.

In military space, senators used the spending bill to push for greater transparency on the Pentagon’s primary satellite launching program and on a troubled effort to field a new generation of satellite terminals for strategic communications.

The Senate bill recommends spending $1.73 billion on the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which is used to launch the vast majority of U.S. national security satellites, $150 million less than the service requested. The Senate cited “unjustified increase” in recommending the lower funding level.

The Senate bill also divides the EELV budget into two line items: one covering the hardware and services associated with individual launches, which is funded at about $974 million; and one for infrastructure and various other activities, which received about $728 million.

In a report accompanying the bill, senators said the move better reflects the Air Force’s EELV contracting arrangement with United Launch Alliance of Denver, and is designed to increase visibility into the program’s finances. The EELV program’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 House had suggested $1.8 billion for EELV, about $137 million more than the Senate committee.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also recommended spending $95 million next year on military satellite communications terminals, including the Air Force’s Family of Beyond Line of Sight-Terminal (FAB-T) program. That amount is $45 million less than the service requested.

McKinney, Texas-based Raytheon Network Centric Systems and Boeing Network and Space Systems of Arlington, Va., are developing competing FAB-T systems, which would enable the president to communicate with the national command authority in the event of a nuclear war. The Air Force plans to award final development-phase contracts later this summer and a production award to a single company before the end of the year.

“The Committee supports competitive acquisition strategies to provide best value to the Government and has supported the necessary funds for development of both FAB-T systems,” the bill’s accompanying report reads. “However, the Committee is concerned there is not adequate visibility on several aspects of the acquisition strategy, including requirements definition and the basis for evaluation of two technologies at different states of maturity.”

The Senate also provided just $10 million for the military’s rapid-response space office, known as the Operationally Responsive Space Office.

The Air Force is seeking to dismantle the responsive space office and transfer its activities to Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center  in Los Angeles. The office is funded by the Air Force but directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Both the House and Senate recommended providing just $10 million on responsive space activities in 2014, specifically to study a low-cost weather satellite project.