Editorial: Range Upgrade Account Gets Raided Again

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It’s disappointing but hardly surprising that the U.S. Air Force is seeking to siphon $25 million from its $99 million budget for launch infrastructure modernization this year and apply the funding elsewhere. The move apparently would further delay the adoption of GPS-based tracking for launch vehicles, a long-overdue upgrade that over time will save millions of dollars.

For well over a decade, the Air Force’s launch range modernization budget has been a favorite raiding target as the service scrambles each year to fund the other priorities that invariably crop up. This is despite longstanding complaints that much of the equipment and infrastructure at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is antiquated. Among the long-planned upgrades is switching to GPS signals for tracking rockets as they lift off, which eventually could enable the Air Force to do away with the aging and extensive network of ground-based radars that are expensive to maintain and to operate.

Plans to switch to GPS-based tracking at the U.S. ranges date back at least to the mid-1990s. Implementing the system would entail placing GPS receivers and relay transmitters on rockets and adding the infrastructure necessary to ingest that data into the overall control system. Such integration tasks almost always turn out to be more complicated than envisioned, but the biggest challenge in this case is not technical but rather a lack of |seriousness.

The Pentagon disclosed its latest GPS tracking deferral plan in a $3.9 billion reprogramming request sent to Capitol Hill in early July for approval. Such requests are routine and allow the Pentagon to shift appropriated funds among programs based on the most pressing needs at the time. Having this kind of flexibility is a good thing; not all programs consume funding at rates that were anticipated when Congress appropriated the money, while others, many of them time critical, require cash infusions to stay on schedule.

An example of the latter is the ORS-1 satellite, a fast-track development project intended to address what Pentagon officials have characterized as an urgent reconnaissance need at U.S. Central Command, which manages operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. ORS-1 is billed as the first operational mission developed by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, which was established to develop and deploy space capabilities quickly in response to emerging military needs, but its budget has always been razor thin at the margins. That the Pentagon is seeking additional funds — and $15.7 million is not a huge amount by defense spending standards — to keep ORS-1 on track for launch in November testifies to the importance of the mission and serves as an example of how the reprogramming process can and should work.

Range modernization, on the other hand, is a repeating example of how the process should not work but often does. Air Force officials pay lip service to the importance of launch range modernization and are no doubt sincere, but year after year this program ends up as a bill payer for other initiatives. It got deferred when U.S. military budgets were generous, as they have been for the last decade, and that bodes very poorly as the Pentagon enters what looks to be a period of relative austerity.

One reason to be hopeful about range modernization is NASA: As part of its planned overhaul of NASA’s human spaceflight program, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is planning investments that include what is being referred to as the 21st Century Launch Complex at Cape Canaveral, an area that will be hard hit by the space shuttle’s retirement next year. But the president’s overall plan is controversial, to say the least, and even if it ultimately wins congressional approval, any NASA budget for launch infrastructure upgrades is likely to be as vulnerable as the Air Force budget has been.

According to the Pentagon reprogramming request, the range modernization funds are available for redirection “due to the re-phasing and re-planning” of various individual upgrade projects. Of course, Pentagon officials can always rephrase projects when they decide they want to spend the appropriated funds elsewhere. “Future improvements through automation will allow the diversification of redundant assets, provide implementation of GPS metric tracking, and prepare for autonomous flight safety,” the reprogramming request says. That future should be now.