United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket, powered by the Russian RD-180 engine, is prepared to launch Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo tug. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is worried that two high-priority space programs will suffer if Congress resorts to a stopgap spending measure instead of passing a defense appropriations bill by the Oct. 1 start of the 2017 fiscal year.

Either a six-month or a 12-month continuing resolution would fund U.S. government activities at 2016 levels and would push off the start of more than 60 new Air Force programs, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Aug. 10. That list includes more than a half-dozen programs related to national security space.

The Air Force requested about $359 million for those space programs, the majority of which, about $296 million, would go toward developing a new American launch system.

A delay in enacting 2017 appropriations also would push back infrastructure funding for a new joint space operations center between the intelligence community and the Defense Department, known as the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center or JICSpOC

In a State of the Air Force briefing Aug. 10, James did not speak specifically to the space programs, but said a continuing resolution would cause “many, many perturbations in our system.”

“We certainly hope that is not the case,” James said. “We know the congressional staff is working hard, even while their members are back at home this summer.”

The most expensive of the new military space programs was the $296 million the Air Force requested to develop a new launch system with the hopes of ending the Defense Department’s reliance on the Russian RD-180  rocket engine.

The Air Force currently depends on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, which uses the RD-180 engine to power its first stage, to launch the majority of national security satellites. In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, lawmakers have limited future use of the engine and called on the Air Force to field an American replacement by fiscal year 2019, a timetable Air Force officials call aggressive.

Ultimately, the Air Force wants to assure it will have multiple launch providers, which could include ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, for both medium- and heavy-class missions and, in the process, reap the benefits of lower costs through competition.

The JICSpOC is expected to serve as a hub of experimentation that potentially could be inserted into the Joint Space Operations Center, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The JSpOC supports the full range of U.S. military space activities including launch, satellite maneuvers and collision avoidance, drawing on data from sources including the Pentagon’s Space Surveillance Network. The JICSpOC is more of a space battle management center aimed at better addressing the rapidly evolving threat environment.

The Air Force requested nearly $27 million for the program in 2017, including $15 million for infrastructure.

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.