Editorial: Pentagon Space Budget Has Hidden Weaknesses

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 military space budget request largely preserves the primary hardware procurement programs, and in that sense lives up to recent Pentagon assurances that space will remain a priority in an era of constrained spending. But there’s more — or, one might say, less — than immediately meets the eye in this budget.

Big trouble appears to be brewing in the classified realm, where indications are that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is looking to scale back its commercial satellite imagery purchasing program next year. This comes less than two years after the agency signed contracts with its two primary imagery providers that required them to invest in next-generation satellites and infrastructure. Depending on the size of the proposed EnhancedView program reduction — the Pentagon describes it as substantial — the companies could be hard pressed to recover their investments in the coming years. In addition to undercutting an industry whose contributions to national security are widely recognized, going through with these cuts would do tremendous damage to the credibility of a White House that has made partnerships with the commercial sector a cornerstone of its space policy.

The visible portion of the budget request, meanwhile, is lacking in development initiatives of the type that keep the nation on space technology’s cutting edge. A big reason of course is that virtually all of the Pentagon’s satellite fleet recapitalization programs cleared development and moved into production almost simultaneously, an accident of timing attributable to a variety of factors. Nevertheless, one must now wonder whether those who lived the hard lessons of the 1990s-era space development debacles will still be available when it comes time to replace the systems now being deployed.

Recognizing the dearth of new programs coming down the pike, government and industry officials had touted block upgrades to existing systems as one research and development avenue. But even that fairly modest approach is losing traction: Some $180 million previously penciled in for research and development work on the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure satellite communications system is now being redirected to other, unspecified defense priorities.

Also absent from the request is funding for a modern weather satellite system. In canceling the Defense Weather Satellite System, Congress provided $123.5 million in 2012 to start work on a follow-on to the venerable Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which dates to the 1960s. Yet the Air Force is requesting just $2 million next year for an analysis of alternatives that should be well understood by now, raising questions about the disposition of the 2012 funding allocated by Congress and, with just two of the aging legacy satellites left in storage, increasing the risk of gaps in global weather coverage.

Elsewhere, the budget shortchanges a badly needed infrastructure modernization effort while eliminating an account for testing out innovative approaches to fielding space-based capabilities.

The Air Force’s funding request for the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System, an overhaul of the service’s antiquated space traffic management computers and infrastructure, is $45 million less than the service previously budgeted for the project in 2013. This funding also is being redirected to other Pentagon priorities, never mind that the space environment is becoming — to use the Obama administration’s own rhetoric — increasingly congested and contested, a trend that only adds to the urgency of the upgrade.

Finally, the proposed budget would eliminate altogether the spending account for Operationally Responsive Space (ORS), a collection of efforts aimed at reducing the time and cost of fulfilling space-based requirements identified by forces in the field. The first operational satellite approved under the ORS paradigm, now providing imagery to U.S. forces in Southwest Asia, took less than three years to build and launch, a blink of the eye compared with most government space development programs. Although the Air Force says ORS lessons are being moved to its primary space procurement shop — and in at least one case has allocated a small amount of funding for that activity — the service does not specify how much, if any, of the money saved by closing the account will find its way into other space-related programs.

The Pentagon could perhaps defend any of these proposed changes individually — the exception being a draconian cut to the EnhancedView program — as sacrifices necessitated by fiscal circumstances whose impact is being felt across the defense enterprise. Collectively, however, they take some of the luster off a budget in which space programs appear at first glance to be relatively unscathed. Given that the programs being protected represent must-have, nonnegotiable capabilities, this budget is the least the Pentagon could ask for.