WASHINGTON — Reduced space hardware procurement and the congressionally imposed cancellation of a next-generation weather satellite system are the primary factors behind a proposed 22 percent decline in unclassified U.S. military space spending in 2013, according to Defense Department budget documents.
Under the 2013 Pentagon budget request unveiled Feb. 13, unclassified space spending would total $8 billion in 2013, down from roughly $10.2 billion in 2012, budget documents show. The request does not include a replacement for the canceled Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) and would eliminate funding for so-called Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) programs, but continues to support most of the Pentagon’s major ongoing space activities.
The budget blueprint, which follows assurances by senior Pentagon officials that space would continue to see investment in a time of austerity in several other areas of the defense budget, contains no space development initiatives to speak of.
“I don’t think you can read too much into the one-year decrease,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank based here. “Funding for space systems tends to be lumpy, especially when you have got to fund whole satellites in a single budget year.”
Indeed, a steep decline in funding for the Wideband Global Satcom satellite communications system, from $793 million in 2012 to a proposed $37 million in 2013, accounts for more than a third of the overall drop in military space spending next year. The U.S. Air Force is procuring the ninth and 10th Wideband Global Satcom satellites this year; one was ordered up by Congress in 2011 and the other is being funded in part by U.S. allies.
The elimination of the DWSS and ORS funding amounts to another $266 million reduction in proposed space spending compared with 2012. Congress appropriated $43 million for DWSS termination and $123.5 million for a follow-on weather satellite system in 2012, along with $110 million for ORS programs.
Also down sharply in the 2013 request is the account for the U.S. Navy’s five-satellite Mobile User Objective System narrowband satellite communications system. The service is seeking just $167 million for the effort next year, compared with $482 million this year, as the development phase of the program winds down. All of the system’s planned five satellites are under firm contract.
Harrison said space programs are not the major focus of attention in the 2013 request, which is good in that no major programs have been singled out for elimination or significant cutbacks. On the other hand, he said, with no new space program starts proposed in the request, the future looks murky for next-generation space system development.
Frank Slazer, vice president of space at the Aerospace Industries Association here, said it is not clear how the Pentagon intends to nurture the next generation of space technology, especially with the elimination of the ORS funding account, a key source of research and development money. The ORS account funds a collection of programs and activities aimed at space capabilities that can be developed and deployed rapidly in response to emerging military needs.
“It is not a lot of money relative to the mainline programs but it is the cutting edge and it is where we really make sure we maintain our edge as a nation,” Slazer said in a Feb. 17 interview. “And so while our current systems are truly second to none, in order to make sure that is true a decade or so from now, you have got to be doing this advanced research and development.”
Observers said they were not surprised by the proposed closure of the ORS Program Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, Calif., and the transfer of its activities and experience to the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here, said the closure had been expected for a while and that there had been some dissatisfaction with how the office was running. He said the move is not an indication that the Pentagon has lost interest in “ORS-like” capabilities.
Josh Hartman, a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies here and a former congressional staffer and Pentagon space official, said the creators of the ORS office purposely kept it outside the Air Force management structure out of concern that the service would try to “smother” it.
The Pentagon should have tried to fix any problems with the ORS office instead of closing it, Hartman said, adding that the Air Force never gave the movement a chance.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, deputy assistant secretary of the service for budget, said the ORS transfer is intended to make its concepts available to a wider audience at the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Pentagon’s main procurement shop for space systems. He said the change will allow for better utilization of key ORS tenets.
Meanwhile, the biggest single line item in the unclassified U.S. military space budget request is the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, used to launch most of the Pentagon’s operational satellites. The service is requesting $1.68 billion for the program next year, a sum that covers the procurement of four new rockets and associated services and activities but does not include launches to be procured on behalf of the Navy or National Reconnaissance Office, budget documents said.
In a bid to curb its rising launch costs, the Air Force is pursuing a block buy strategy under which it intends to procure six to 10 rockets annually from contractorover a period of three to five years. That plan has been criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and has detractors in Congress as well.
Other space procurements planned for 2013 include two more Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites and two additional GPS 3 navigation satellites, according to budget documents.