Editorial | Little Tantalizes in U.S. Air Force Budget

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If the space industry is looking for something to get excited about, it won’t find it in the U.S. Air Force’s 2015 budget request.

Touted by Air Force officials as a first step toward revamping the current constellation architecture, which many see as vulnerable to attack, the plan mostly stretches out existing programs, in part because satellites are lasting longer on orbit than expected. 

That’s a logical thing to do when budgets are tight, but there’s little indication that more than a fraction of the resulting cost savings are being invested in new or improved space capabilities. 

The request does include a long-overdue funding wedge — $40 million in 2015 — for a new military weather satellite system, which is encouraging. It appears as though the effort will focus on developing and launching a satellite with just enough capability to plug the gaps as the Air Force increases its reliance on external data sources, including civilian weather satellites. 

Air Force officials cited the Weather System Follow-On program as an early example of disaggregation — the emerging space architecture concept that entails moving away from large multipayload satellite platforms toward more-dispersed capabilities — and in fact it is. It also embodies the type of resourcefulness that’s needed in tough budgetary times, even if it falls short of a true next-generation capability.  

More dubious is the Air Force’s suggestion that its plans for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite communications system, which provides highly secure links to strategic and tactical forces, is further evidence of the disaggregation trend. Funding for the seventh and eighth AEHF satellites has been removed from the Air Force’s five-year funding projection, which in theory offers a window of opportunity to pursue different deployment schemes, such as flying the strategic and tactical payloads on separate satellites.

Industry veterans are skeptical, however, saying the Air Force has simply pushed a $2.1 billion investment beyond its visible budget horizon. They believe the Air Force ultimately will order the seventh and eighth AEHF satellites, whose cost likely will increase if there’s a break in the production line between now and then.

The out-year budget also includes funding for a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which keeps tabs on an increasingly contested geostationary-orbit environment. But even though the follow-on satellite has been identified as a top priority by Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, it is not funded in the year that counts: 2015.

Certainly there were no unpleasant surprises in the request. For example, the Space Fence orbital-object tracking system, the long-delayed prime contract for which is slated for award this spring, is funded, as is a vital upgrade to the Pentagon’s space traffic management center, known as the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System.

But contrast the visible Air Force space program with what appears to be happening on the classified side of the space business, where, according to industry sources, several new programs are underway, some of which leverage commercial-like capabilities and practices. Boeing says it has sold three variants of a commercially available satellite platform to an undisclosed government customer, for example, while Gen. Shelton recently lifted the secrecy veil from a geostationary-orbit surveillance system slated for launch this year.  

Whether or not these and perhaps other programs should have been classified in the first place seems debatable. One of the more interesting justifications — that access to different pockets of money with far less scrutiny gives classified operators more leeway to pursue innovative programs and procurements — has an undeniable logic, but for the wrong reasons. If it’s that difficult to try new things out in the open, something is terribly wrong with the system. 

That aside, if there’s an overarching theme to the Air Force’s 2015 request, it’s that planned spending, in 2015 and beyond, appears to be down significantly across the portfolio of core space programs. To be fair, this is due in large part to the fact that most of these programs are mature, and that the Air Force is squeezing more on-orbit life out of its operational satellites.

That’s not a bad thing, obviously — saving money is an important and laudable goal in any budgetary environment, especially the current one. But the longer it remains the dominant priority, the harder it will be to tip the scales back in favor of technical and operational innovation.