Editorial: An Ill-considered Markup

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Space programs took a beating for no apparent reason in a 2012 defense spending bill drafted by House appropriators in June. Nobody expected space — or any other procurement area — to emerge unscathed in the current budgetary environment, and to be sure, the U.S. Defense Department doesn’t always adequately justify its funding requests. But at a time of instability and angst throughout the space industry, members of the House Appropriations Committee could at least have given some indication that they had carefully thought through their funding recommendations.

A cursory examination of the House version of the 2012 Defense Appropriations Act turns up roughly $1 billion in proposed reductions to the Pentagon’s estimated $10.2 billion request for unclassified national security space programs. Among those singled out for significantly less money than requested were the Defense Weather Satellite System, which was recently placed under contract; Operationally Responsive Space (ORS), a relatively new approach to satellite development that is beginning to bear fruit; and Space Situational Awareness, identified as a top priority not only by the White House in its 2010 National Space Policy but also by military commanders. Given that the bill would provide a total of $649 billion to Defense Department accounts within its jurisdiction, just 1 percent below the $658 billion request, it would seem that space — whether by accident or design — absorbed a disproportionate share of the panel’s fiscal discipline.

Had committee members spelled out why they didn’t think this or that program merits the funding level requested by the Pentagon — such as concerns about technical viability or planning changes made since finalization of the spending request — that would be one thing. But the report accompanying the spending bill provided little such detail, resorting mostly to the catchall phrase “excess to need” without further explanation.

If many of the funding recommendations in the bill seem arbitrary, others appear punitive. This is particularly true of initiatives with the greatest potential to spur innovation and get the most out of the Pentagon’s increasingly scarce dollars.

ORS is a prime example. The bill trimmed the Pentagon’s $86.5 million request for ORS activities to just $29.5 million, citing “excess to need — duplicative efforts.” Ironically, the markup preceded by roughly two weeks the successful launch of the first operational ORS mission, ORS-1, commissioned in 2008 to meet what military authorities characterized as an “urgent need” at Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In contrast to their colleagues on the appropriations panel, House authorizers seem to get it. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 recommends adding $20 million to the Pentagon’s ORS request to “meet the urgent needs of commanders, further develop and demonstrate a modular architecture, and support enabling technologies and infrastructure in furtherance of national security objectives.” Indeed, with most of the Pentagon’s satellite fleet recapitalization programs moving from development to production, ORS is important not only to fill gaps in existing capability but to spur both technical and operational innovation.

The appropriations bill also would effectively derail a Pentagon initiative with the potential to reduce the cost of meeting its ever increasing demand for bandwidth: leasing the full capacity of a commercial communications satellite over its 15-year lifespan. True, there are plenty of questions about how the Assured Satcom Services in Single Theater (ASSIST) program would work in practice. But rather than give the Pentagon and industry the opportunity to find a way, appropriators recommended cutting the $501 million ASSIST funding request to $85 million, a level that would make it virtually impossible for a company to commit the capital necessary to deploy a satellite.

At the same time, lawmakers recommended boosting the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) budget request by $335 million to procure a ninth satellite that’s not in the budget request. Three WGS satellites are on orbit, with one slated to launch this year; three are in production, including one funded by Australia; and one more is in the 2012 request. In other words, this production line is in no immediate danger of getting cold; committing funds now to a ninth WGS satellite will make it difficult to gain any traction on ASSIST in the next few years.

Finally, like their colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee, the appropriators denied the Air Force’s request for advance appropriations to procure two Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites. The report accompanying the appropriations bill chastised the Defense Department for not requesting the full funding necessary to buy the satellites in 2012 and dismissed the advance appropriations concept — designed to encourage manufacturing efficiency by locking in funding levels over a multiyear period — as a “budgetary gimmick.” With Senate authorizers also having rejected the advance appropriations idea, the potential for cost savings on this program — money that could be plowed back into research and development or innovative ways of doing business — is reduced.

Constrained budget environments necessarily ratchet up the funding tension between established programs and new ideas that might enable the Pentagon to do more with less. Striking an appropriate balance between the two, never easy, is virtually impossible in legislation that comes down as hard on space programs as does the House defense appropriations bill.