Editorial | Sitting on the Fence

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Senior U.S. government space officials like to repeat a catchphrase from the Obama administration’s National Security Space Strategy released in early 2011: Space is becoming increasingly congested, contested and competitive.  

Of this, there can be little doubt.

What is in doubt these days is the Defense Department’s resolve to do anything about it in an era of shrinking budgets. The strategy specifically says the United States will enhance its space situational awareness capabilities, a necessary step to address the congestion problem, but the Pentagon appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

Exhibit A is the Space Fence system for orbital surveillance, both its current incarnation and a planned upgrade that would provide significantly improved capability. On Aug. 9, Air Force Space Command informed the company that operates the current Space Fence, or Air Force Space Surveillance System — a line of very high frequency radars stretching across the southern part of the country — that it will shut down the system Sept. 1. According to one expert, the early 1960s-vintage Space Fence, able to detect and track orbiting objects as small as a basketball, accounts for some 40 percent of the observations of the Air Force’s broader Space Surveillance Network, which also relies on other radar and optical sensors, both on the ground and in space.

Meanwhile, plans for a next-generation Space Fence using S-band radars have been placed on hold while the Defense Department mulls the findings of a wide-ranging review of the systems it will be able to afford under scenarios in which its budget is cut by $150 billion, $250 billion and $500 billion during the next 10 years. The latter scenario tracks roughly with sequestration, a decade’s worth of indiscriminate federal budget cuts triggered March 1 after Congress was unable to agree on a more-targeted deficit reduction plan.

According to budget documents, the Air Force has spent more than $500 million to date on designs for the new Space Fence, which would be able to track golf ball-sized objects while enabling the Pentagon’s Joint Space Operations Center to dramatically improve the timeliness of collision-avoidance warnings to military, civil and commercial spacecraft operators. Given that the amount of debris circling Earth is only going to grow — U.S. satellites today are routinely moved to avoid collisions — and that a golf ball-sized object traveling at orbital velocity can be every bit as lethal as a spent rocket stage, it’s not hard to see just how crucial this system will be in the years ahead.

If sequestration continues unchecked for the next 10 years, there’s simply no avoiding the fact that many critical Pentagon programs, the Space Fence included, will fall by the wayside. Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command and an avowed Space Fence supporter, is absolutely correct when he says it makes no sense to go through with the contract award only to have to cancel it a year or two later on affordability grounds.

Sadly, there is zero indication that Congress and the White House are ready to strike the grand bargain necessary to formally end sequestration. But there is plenty of evidence that the policy is unraveling anyway: The White House budget request for 2014 ignored sequestration, as did both the House and Senate versions of the defense appropriations bill for next year. Moreover, the Senate fully funds the Air Force’s $400 million request for space situational awareness systems, which includes $377 million for the Space Fence; the House recommended providing $350 million of the total.

In other words, the next-generation Space Fence appears to have the necessary congressional support to move forward, sequestration notwithstanding. The Air Force’s decision on whether to proceed with the long-overdue Space Fence contract award will be a strong indicator of the White House’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to managing the space environment. In that regard, Gen. Shelton’s directive to shut down the existing Space Fence — budgetary gamesmanship or not — is not a good sign.