Gen. John Hyten. Credit: Jose Morales/Xinia Productions

MAUI, Hawaii — If the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration return in late 2015, U.S. Air Force Space Command likely would have to mothball radars, telescopes or other elements of its ground-based space surveillance architecture, the service’s top space official said.

In an interview here with SpaceNews Sept. 9 at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said it is unlikely sequestration would force the service to stop operating any of its satellite constellations, but warned of a dire outlook.

“2016 scares me,” he said.

As Defense Department officials put together fiscal year 2016 budget proposals the White House will deliver to Congress early next year, the return of sequestration remains a possibility. Hyten said Space Command is assembling several options for the budget, including those that work within sequestration caps.

Sequestration refers to the across-the-board spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 following the failure of Congress and the White House to agree on a long-term deficit reduction plan. While spending levels proposed for 2015 would not be affected because they comply with a two-year budget framework Congress passed in 2013, sequestration is set to return with the start of fiscal year 2016 next October unless Congress takes further action to rollback sequestration.

“If we go to a sequestration budget it will break Space Command,” he said. “We’ve already taken every fungible asset we can try to figure out. Now we have to go after real capability. What is it you want to stop doing? You want to stop doing GPS? You want to stop doing [missile warning]? You want to stop doing ground-based missile warning? You want to stop doing deep space surveillance? What mission do you want to stop doing?”

Space leaders have said they are in a unique position when it comes to budget cuts, specifically to its operation and maintenance budgets. While the Air Force can ground squadrons or reduce flight hours, they say, the service cannot stop flying a satellite without significant cost and a long-term loss of capability. To help convince Pentagon and congressional leaders of the difficult budget situation, Hyten said Space Command leaders “put real options on the table,” without specifying what those plans entailed.

“The options are close this, close this, close this,” he said. “The worst case would be a constellation but I don’t think anybody believes that the United States will tell us to shut down a constellation. That means you have to go to the ground-based architecture and start closing down elements of the ground-based architecture. Radars, telescopes, they’re all part of the ground-based architecture you have to start looking at.”

Such moves are likely to be met with resistance from within some pockets of the Defense Department.

“Every time we put forward something, people rightly said, ‘you’re crazy. You’re just joking.’ The missile defense guys came and said, ‘you can’t shut down Cobra Dane.’ Everything we put forth is critical to some military mission,” Hyten said in a separate interview last month.

Cobra Dane is an Air Force radar at Eareckson Air Station in Shemya, Alaska, that provides missile warning data and provides information to NASA on orbital debris.

Facing similar budget constraints a year ago, Space Command leaders opted to shut down the Air Force Space Surveillance System of ground-based multistatic radars in September 2013 to save money in its operation budget. While waiting for its next generation object tracking system, an S-band radar known as Space Fence, to come on line, the Air Force is relying on other surveillance assets, including other ground-based radars, optical sensors and satellites.

During that same round of reduction, Space Command leaders also reduced the number of contractors at the command’s headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Compounding the difficulty with the 2016 budget is the fact that Space Command is facing the loss of about 230 jobs as part of a broad Defense Department plan to cut costs and staff by 20 percent.

A Defense Department report from April said sequestration would mean buying two, rather than three, of the service’s next-generation position, navigation and timing satellites in 2017 from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver. That change would save the Air Force $288 million that year.

Meanwhile, Hyten said the 2016 budget will continue to move the Air Force’s satellite portfolio toward disaggregation, an emerging vision for space that favors smaller, less complex satellites, hosted payloads and a series of other reforms over larger, more complex systems that have been the standard for several decades.

“We’re going down that path,” he said. “Not only is it operationally more effective, but I think we can do it fiscally more responsibly as well.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.