WASHINGTON — The Air Force is seeking congressional approval to transfer $160 million from other accounts to fund a new early warning constellation known as the next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system, or next-gen OPIR. The military routinely submits reprogramming requests to Congress, but this one is significant because the Air Force is trying to make next-gen OPIR the poster child for a new way of buying satellites in the face of growing competition from China and Russia.

A request submitted by the Air Force July 19 would shift $93.2 million from programs funded in fiscal year 2019 and $67.5 million from programs funded in fiscal year 2018.

The next-gen OPIR constellation — envisioned as three satellites in geosynchronous orbit and two in polar orbit — is being developed by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The Air Force kicked off the program in 2018 as a faster-moving alternative to the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). The goal was to compress what would have taken nine-years under SBIRS into a five-year schedule. The initial plan was to deliver the first next-gen OPIR satellite by 2023, but the Air Force did not have the funds to do that so the target delivery date slipped to 2025. Reaching that goal is now in question unless Congress approves the reprogramming, officials said.

The $160 million request submitted this month is far smaller than the $632 million reprogramming that Air Force officials said months ago was needed to deliver next-gen OPIR by 2025. The Air Force did not respond to questions on why the request has been reduced.

The Air Force meanwhile continues to press its case for next-gen OPIR funding for fiscal year 2020. The budget request is still being considered by appropriations committees. The Air Force requested $1.4 billion for research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E); and $200 million for procurement. That is almost double what Congress enacted in fiscal year 2019 for next-gen OPIR — $703 million for RDT&E and $108 million for procurement.

The additional $160 million are “required to continue to execute an acquisition program to rapidly field a survivable, defendable, resilient missile warning architecture,” said the request, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews. “The request will provide the requisite funding to continue the development of the satellite and will allow the earliest purchase of critical-path parts and materials.”

The document notes that Congress had already approved this requirement but there was insufficient funds to make necessary purchases. In this new reprogramming proposal, the Air Force would move $93.2 million from fiscal year 2019 RDT&E program lines: $20 million from Space Control Technology, $37.9 million from Future Advanced Weapon Analysis and Programs, $25.3 million from B-52 squadrons, and $10 million from the Space and Missile Test and Evaluation Center. An additional $67.5 million would come from fiscal year 2018 program lines: $52 million from Operationally Responsive Space, $10 million from the Space Based Infrared System High EMD, and $5.5 million from classified programs.

Industry and DoD sources said congressional committees have asked for additional information and justification from the Air Force before they sign off on any reprogramming. While the Senate is said to be onboard with the next-gen OPIR request, the House Appropriations Committee has been skeptical. In their report accompanying the 2020 defense markup, House appropriators questioned the strategy for next-gen OPIR and cut DoD’s request by $201 million. The committee agrees with DoD that there is an “urgent need to field a more resilient capability against growing space threats.” But in the report it raises flags about the “rapid budget growth and the Air Force strategy of relying on significant reprogramming requests to keep the program on schedule.”

Air Force pressed for time

The Air Force conceived next-gen OPIR following years of delays and cost overruns in the SBIRS program. Up until late 2017, the Air Force was planning to develop a new system to replace SBIRS that would have been ready to launch by 2029. The leaders of the Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command pushed back, arguing that the nation could not wait that long to get more advanced missile warning sensors. The Air Force in response proposed next-gen OPIR as a fast-track program that could be ready to launch by 2023. It would accelerate satellite development by using special authorities given to DoD by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, called Section 804 authorities.

Col. Tony Meeks, the program manager for OPIR, told SpaceNews last month that using 804 authorities would have made it possible to get the first satellite on orbit by 2023. “You just have to accelerate that money into a shorter time horizon,” he said. “It’s not that we have slowed the program down because of technical requirements.”

Section 804 allows DoD to compress the development cycle by waiving procurement regulations. “It provides smart opportunities,” said Meeks. “It does not say ‘run careless, run fast, run stupid.’” It says that “where you have low risk, don’t go through the same archaic, stilted process.”

Using these authorities, “we were driving to a 2023 launch,” said Meeks. “Then the reality of the budget hit.” Will it happen by 2025? “That is entirely dependent on the funding Congress provides us.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...