The Space Development Agency's Transport Layer is a mesh network of satellites in low Earth orbit that will talk to each other and relay data to military forces on the ground. Credit: SDA

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency’s plans to launch 20 satellites and procure an additional 126 over the coming year could be derailed if Congress doesn’t pass a budget when temporary funding expires in February, the agency’s director Derek Tournear said Dec. 6.

Congress passed a stopgap spending bill, or continuing resolution, on Dec. 3 that funds the U.S. government until Feb. 18. Under a CR, federal agencies can continue to operate but their funding is frozen at the previous year’s levels.

The Dec. 3 CR is the second Congress approved since the start of the current fiscal year Oct. 1. As pitched political battles continue on Capitol Hill, DoD worries that Congress will continue to extend temporary funding and not pass a full-year appropriations for the remainder of fiscal year 2022.

An extended CR would be especially bad news for SDA because its proposed funding for 2022 is much higher than it was in 2021. DoD requested $936.7 million in 2022 for SDA, about a $600 million increase from 2021. The agency is ramping up the procurement of satellites for its low Earth orbit Transport Layer Tranche 1 constellation, which is intended to provide communications services to the military. SDA also is working with the Missile Defense Agency to develop sensor satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

“The way we set up our budget and the way we plan, we always assume that you have to plan on some amount of CR every year,” Tournear said during a SpaceNews awards event.

If Congress does pass a full budget by February, “we will be okay. We’ll be able to continue to hit all of our all of our plans and schedules,” he said. But if the CR goes beyond that, “it will be a huge impact.”

“Our budget is going up significantly, so if we are stuck at the ’21 levels through ’22, that will cause significant slips in Tranche 1 and could impact Tranche 0 as well if we don’t get some kind of anomaly funding that would enable us to have funding above our ’21 level,” said Tournear.

The first 20 satellites of the Transport Layer Tranche 0 are scheduled to launch in September.

As CRs have become more the norm than the exception over the past decade, DoD has frequently submitted what is known as legislative anomaly proposals, or requests for authority beyond the standard CR provisions so contracts and programs can move forward.

Tournear said an anomaly proposal would be an option to allow SDA to press on with Tranche 0 launches and Tranche 1 procurements if a CR is extended.

“We’re working with Congress and the Department of Defense comptroller to go through different options to allow us to do that because everyone knows this would have such a major impact to delivering these capabilities,” he said. “We can weather a CR until February but there would be significant impacts unless we can get some kind of anomaly.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in an interview last week that CRs are an “unfortunate” reality that creates inefficiency in military programs and delays innovation.

In a Dec. 6 statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said “some have even suggested a CR could last an entire year, an unprecedented move that would cause enormous, if not irreparable, damage for a wide range of bipartisan priorities — from defense readiness and modernization, to research and development, to public health.”

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...