NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – A failure by Congress to pass a 2016 budget by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year would delay several new classified and unclassified programs aimed at improving U.S. space protection and counter space capabilities, the head of U.S. Air Force Space Command said Sept. 16.
Both activities are top White House priorities for national security space.
The Pentagon has budgeted more than $5 billion in fiscal years 2016-2020 for what senior defense officials describe as space protection activities in light of what they see as a growing threat from Russia and China to U.S. space capabilities. The mostly classified funding, which industry sources have said could reach $8 billion, would cover a gamut of activities including space surveillance and counter space projects.
But that funding requires approval by Congress, which has been unable to agree on a 2016 federal budget. Instead, lawmakers are trying to craft a continuing resolution that funds federal activities at 2015 levels, at least for part of the upcoming fiscal year.
“We have some significant space recommendations that are in the ‘16 president’s budget,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said during a press briefing Sept. 16 here at the annual Air Force Association tech expo. “Many of those are classified. [We] wouldn’t be able to get started on those. All of those would get put on hold. It’s just bad.”
Air Force leaders have said some of the space protection-related funds will go toward three unclassified Air Force programs: the Space Fence, a next-generation space surveillance radar; the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite follow-on, designed to watch objects in geostationary orbit; and the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System, a three-phase hardware and software upgrade intended to improve the precision and timeliness of space situational awareness information.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a speech here Sept. 14, that a continuing resolution would be worse for the service than the automatic budgets cuts known as sequestration. Those cuts, along with overall caps on spending, were imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Hyten hinted that a continuing resolution could also push back another high profile project: a new rocket engine program, which has been a top priority of several influential lawmakers including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Congress has given the U.S. Air Force a 2019 deadline for fielding an American-made propulsion system capable of ending the Defense Department’s dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.
The Air Force is expected to award as many as four contracts in the coming weeks worth a combined $160 million for new prototype rocket propulsion systems.
“The new launch structure? Those are ‘16 efforts,” Hyten said. “[We] wont be able to get started there.”
One program that would not be affected, Hyten said, is the new Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, a joint Defense Department and intelligence community space battle management center. The Pentagon announced Sept. 11 that the Defense Department and intelligence community are contributing a combined $16 million to get the center started at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, by Oct. 1.
Hyten said during the briefing and in a Sept. 15 speech here that the center would be used to experiment with new operational techniques that could later be adopted into the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base.