U.S. Air Force Space Modernization Funding Takes a Hit in House Bill

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WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee voted June 2 to strip about $191 million from an Air Force initiative to foster next-generation satellite technologies and blaze a trail for smaller, less complicated satellites.

House appropriators, during a closed markup of a $579 billion Pentagon spending bill that now awaits a vote by the full House, removed the $191 million from the Air Force’s Space Modernization Initiative (SMI), furthering a long-standing disagreement between lawmakers and the Air Force about how the service should transition to new satellite programs.

Lawmakers stripped the 2016 funding from two programs — one involving missile warning and one focused on protected communications — that are intended to test the merits of performing these missions with smaller, less sophisticated satellites than the Air Force uses today.

“The Committee is concerned that the Air Force is using Space Modernization Initiative (SMI) funding to begin and sustain new development programs,” appropriators wrote in a report accompanying the bill. “The Committee believes that SMI funding should be used to make evolutionary upgrades to existing programs to enhance mission effectiveness and avoid parts obsolescence.”

Specifically, the bill would deny $51 million the Air Force requested for 2016 to launch a wide-field-of-view sensor designed to spot tactical missile threats.

The Air Force is seeking $11 million for delivery, calibration and on-orbit checkout of the so-called 6-degree sensor, built by L-3 Communications, along with work on associated ground systems. The service is seeking another $40 million for integrating the payload with its spacecraft and launch vehicle.

Air Force officials have said the experiments with wide-field-of-view sensors are critical for two reasons. First, they are helpful in assessing mission architectures for a follow-on to the service’s Space Based Infrared System of missile-warning satellites. Second, they will help the Air Force develop the algorithms necessary to process the reams of data that would come from improved sensor focal-plane technology.

House appropriators also denied $140 million of the $174 million the Air Force is seeking for a Space Modernization Initiative program involving the Advanced Extremely High Frequency series of communications satellites the U.S. began deploying in 2010.

Air Force officials have told lawmakers that denying the funding would likely slow work to demonstrate the Air Force’s newly developed protected tactical waveform in new modems and reworked terminals. It would also delay the service’s ability to offer protected communications using either military or commercial satellites.

The Air Force hopes to demonstrate the transmission of the protected waveform via production-representative terminals over both Wideband Global Satcom and commercial satellites in 2018.

House appropriators, in the report accompanying the bill, said they are “skeptical of the operational impacts, potential program risks, and cost of these new efforts.”

In addition to denying SMI funding, the bill House appropriators approved June 2 would:

• End the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. The Air Force requested $89 million in 2016 to launch the final DMSP satellite, but House appropriators zeroed out the program and stripped $120 million the Air Force budgeted for the launch.

• Add $26 million for the second in the Defense Department’s “pathfinder” series of projects aimed at exploring new ways to procure satellite bandwidth from the private sector. The Air Force has no funding, either in 2015 or proposed for next year, for the second pathfinder, in which the service would commit to a prelaunch lease of an entire transponder aboard a commercial satellite. Industry officials say about $52 million is needed.

• Provide no additional dollars for the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, even though House and Senate authorizers are recommending $20 million for an office the Air Force says needs only $6.5 million next year.