Defense Bill Trims Funding for SBIRS, Boosts Some Missile Defense Accounts

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama signed a 2014 defense authorization bill Dec. 26 that largely adheres to his budget requests for military space programs while recommending an increase in funding for missile defense target discrimination capability, which has long been identified as a weakness in the U.S. shield.

With the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 providing the framework, it is now up to House and Senate appropriators to hammer out the budgetary specifics for individual programs, something they must do by Jan. 15, when the continuing resolution currently funding the federal government expires.

“With the approval of these spending levels, my Committee will be able to get down to business on our Appropriations bills, and I anticipate that we will start at once,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House appropriations committee, said in a Dec. 12 statement. “We have a heavy lift ahead of us — drafting, negotiating, and passing these bills in just over one month — but I am certain my colleagues on both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees are up to the task.”

The compromise authorization measure reverts to the Air Force’s request for all of its major space programs with one notable exception: the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite program, for which lawmakers authorized $934 million, a $30 million decrease from the request. The bill cites modernization delays in making the cut.

The bill also holds back 50 percent of the funds the Air Force requested for the SBIRS program’s wide-field-of-view sensor demonstration activity until the Defense Department certifies it is following congressional direction on the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office. The specific value of that account was not clear from the legislation.

The Air Force has been trying to close the ORS Office — which was established a few years ago at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., to develop and demonstrate space capabilities that can be fielded quickly in response to emerging military needs — and transfer its activities to the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center. The move is opposed by Congress, which in the 2013 defense authorization bill barred the Air Force from transferring ORS activities to the Space and Missile Systems Center, the service’s primary procurement shop for space systems.

But lawmakers remain concerned that the ORS Office may not be co-located with the headquarters facilities of the Space and Missile Systems Center.

In the missile defense arena, the bill adds $50 million to the Pentagon’s $315 million request for Ballistic Missile Defense sensors for enhanced target discrimination capabilities. U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Syring, the head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has said repeatedly that improving target discrimination technologies, long identified as a weakness in U.S. missile defenses, is among the MDA’s top priorities.

Another $30 million is for an additional missile defense radar to track long-range missile threats from North Korea.

The bill also authorizes a $100 million increase over the MDA’s request for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), the nation’s primary territorial shield. Of that increase, $80 million is earmarked to correct the problems that led to a failure of the system in its most recent intercept test, which took place in July.

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While Senate leaders have questioned whether the GMD system can realistically protect the nation from incoming ballistic missile attacks, prominent Republicans in both chambers have called for more testing of the system, which has failed in its last three intercept attempts.

The remaining $20 million of the GMD increase is for site evaluation and environmental impact studies for a proposed third interceptor site for the system.

Currently there are two GMD interceptor sites: Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in March that the MDA would increase the number of interceptors at Fort Greely and begin looking for a third site in the United States, something Republican lawmakers have been pushing for more than a year. In September, the MDA announced it had identified five potential sites for a third interceptor facility, all of which are in the eastern half of the United States.