U.S. AIr Force Gen. William Shelton. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

WASHINGTON — Using his most stark language to date on the subject, the U.S. Air Force’s top uniformed officer for space described the automatic U.S. budget cuts known as sequestration as “silliness” and warned that their compounded effects into 2015 could devastate the entire U.S. military space enterprise.

“You will break every program,” said Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command.

Speaking at the Air Force Association conference here Sept. 17, Shelton also said the main payload for the Air Force’s next generation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites faces manufacturing and processing issues and currently has no firm delivery date. The GPS 3 satellites are nominally supposed to start launching in 2015.

Shelton spent much of the speech stressing that the military requirements have not changed since the advent of sequestration, but their funding outlook has. 

He complained about the amount of time he was “wasting” dealing with budgets cuts associated with sequestration. Though his audience consisted largely of Air Force officers and industry representatives, he delivered a talk that appeared to be aimed largely at decisionmakers.

“It’s hard to believe our adversaries’ plans being as capable” of wrecking the U.S. space program as sequestration, he said.  Shelton pointed to two instances this year where he tried to save money by limiting the operation of radars used for space surveillance and missile warning but was forced to revert back to the full capability to counter impending threats, including one from North Korea. 

“I am out of all the tricks I know how to play,” he said. “Certainly we will find a way, but it won’t be pretty. I think we’re in a good place for 2014. I have no idea how we’ll get to ’15.”

In August, Shelton ordered the closure of the Air Force Space Surveillance System, citing sequestration. “I’ve cut the only one I thought I could cut,” he said of the decision. He also said the decades-old system, whose replacement has been delayed, was “not up to modern standards.”

A week earlier, in a speech to the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference in Hawaii, Shelton sounded a similar warning.

“When you take almost a billion dollars out of my operations and maintenance budget here in Air Force Space Command, and expect nothing to change operationally, that is probably assuming way too much,” he said.

Space Command officials say their budget dropped by $508 million in 2013 and is slated to decrease by about $462 million in 2014.

Meanwhile, Shelton described the GPS 3 payload problem as “a host of things” and said the Air Force is increasingly concerned. While the problem has not yet delayed the GPS 3 program schedule, “we’re running right up against our margins,” Shelton said. 

ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., is developing the GPS 3 system’s main navigation payload, a role it has had from the beginning of the GPS program. Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor on GPS 3, which will feature improved accuracy and better resistance to jamming and other forms of interference than previous generations of GPS craft. 

In December 2012, Exelis announced it had integrated and performed initial testing of a payload aboard a prototype GPS 3 satellite. 

An Exelis spokeswoman, Jane Khodos, was not able to respond by press time to a request for comment.

Also at the conference,  Shelton provided updates on a number of U.S. military space programs, including: 

  • Decisions on leveraging commercial satellites, either through expanded transponder leases or using them to host dedicated military payloads, will come in 2015 or 2016, he said. “I’m a big proponent of pushing it to commercial if we can,” he said.
  • The Air Force issued a request for information Aug. 5 for a prototype wide-field-of-view staring sensor payload to be hosted aboard a yet-to-be-selected satellite as part of the service’s examination of ways to modernize its primary missile warning satellite system. During a roundtable with reporters Sept. 17, Shelton said the sensor is one of his top research priorities. 

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...