WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force expects to save about $14 million a year by shutting down a key component of its Space Surveillance Network, according to an Aug. 12 press release from the service.
In the press release, the Air Force confirms plans to shut down the aging Air Force Space Surveillance System, also known informally as the Space Fence. But the statement also touts the capability of a next-generation system whose future has been in doubt in recent weeks, suggesting it will go forward after all.
The press release identified Oct. 1 as the target shutdown date for the current Space Fence, although a memo previously obtained by SpaceNews said the system would be turned off Sept. 1.
The service faces “resource constraints” because of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, according to the release.
The statement said a final decision on whether to remove equipment from nine sites that comprise the current Space Fence would be made in several weeks. But an Aug. 9 memo from Air Force Space Command to Five Rivers Services, the contractor that operates the Space Fence, asked for photographs of the closed sites, plywood on windows and weekly updates emailed to Air Force staffers.
Deployed in the early 1960s, the Space Fence includes three very-high-frequency (VHF) radar transmitter sites and six receiving stations. Experts said the system is responsible for approximately 40 percent of all observations performed by the Air Force-run Space Surveillance Network, which includes other ground-and space-based sensor assets.
To make up for the lost capability, Space Command is looking at modified operating modes for some of these other assets, specifically the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota and the space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The release said those sites will provide greater accuracy than the Space Fence had.
T.S. Kelso, senior research astrodynamicist at the Center for Space Standards & Innovation, a research arm of orbit-modeling software provider AGI, warned about depending too heavily on the Eglin site.
“With Eglin being the only remaining dedicated space surveillance radar, any outages there would effectively leave us blind—relying solely on the collateral missile warning sites, which are also being considered for cutbacks,” Kelso said in an email. “Any decision to close the [Air Force Space Surveillance System] must be made within this larger context. There are no comparable systems operated anywhere else on the planet to take up the slack.”
This is not the first time the Air Force has considered closing the Space Fence, according to Kelso. After the service assumed control of the system from the U.S. Navy in 2004, several Air Force studies looked at the possibility of closing it down but found that doing so would result in a significant loss of capability, he said.
The Navy had estimated the Space Fence needed $400 million for a service life extension program, he said.
The release appears to suggest confidence within the Air Force that the Pentagon will allow the service to award a contract for a next-generation Space Fence. That contract has been on hold due to the Defense Department’s recently completed Strategic Choices and Management Review, which examined the Pentagon’s options under three different funding scenarios for the next decade.
“When combined with the new Joint Space Operations Center’s high performance computing environment, the new Fence will truly represent a quantum leap forward in space situational awareness for the nation,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in the press release.
Experts had suggested that closing the current Space Fence could increase pressure on the Air Force to award a contract on the next-generation system. Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs for the new Space Fence and are awaiting a decision from the Air Force on who will build the system.