In the wake of the Chinese anti-satellite test, the phrase on the lips of everyone who is anyone in the space business has been “space situational awareness” — the ability to “see” and understand what is going on in space. Space situational awareness, or SSA, is the foundation stone underpinning all operations in space, required for: ensuring that working satellites do not interfere with each other, debris tracking and collision avoidance, diagnosing an ailing satellite, and satellite protection and defense, as well as for the more controversial Air Force mission of “offensive space control.”

And even prior to the Chinese test, there was widespread recognition that U.S. SSA capabilities need improvement. Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of Air Force Space Command, told reporters in September 2006 at a media roundtable at Peterson Air Force Base that while SSA is the Air Force’s most important mission, it is also the area that “we need to do the most work in.”

So, one would expect that this “top priority” would be reflected in spades within the Air Force’s 2008 budget request. Unfortunately, one would be wrong.

Rather than beefing up SSA as is so urgently required, the 2008 budget request cuts funding from a planned total of $216.972 million to $187.804 million. This has resulted in delays for two major space surveillance programs: the Space Fence — down $9.775 million from what had been planned — will not receive a much needed upgrade until 2013; and the Space-Based Surveillance System — down $36.662 million — will see development of its operational satellite design delayed from 2008 to 2010.

Even more egregiously, the program that allows the Air Force to share, and receive, debris tracking and collision avoidance data from commercial and foreign space operators, called the Commercial and Foreign Entities program, has been zeroed out. Telecommunications industry executives already have been clamoring for improvements to that pilot program, with Intelsat Chief Executive David McGlade in a Space News Commentary [Feb. 19, page 27] characterizing the data-sharing effort “essential” and calling on Congress to “formalize and expand” the program. And given that the Chinese test has created nearly 900 pieces of trackable debris (bigger than 10 centimeters in diameter) and thousands of smaller, hard-to-track pieces, the failure to support this program is at the least short-sighted, especially considering that it costs less than $2 million to run.

Granted, the Air Force has recognized the shortfall in SSA funding in its Unfunded Priorities List provided to Congress, which lists $110 million in unmet SSA needs. That said, only one SSA-related program, a brand new effort to equip satellites with a sensor suite that would “detect and locate threats to satellite health” is listed in the top 25 unfunded priorities, at No. 12. All the other underfunded SSA programs come far below.

This is simply an unacceptable situation. The sensors, computer models and processes for sharing data related to SSA already are falling behind required capabilities. Lack of funding will ensure only that they fall behind even farther at a time when the risks in space — from ever-growing levels of space debris, increasingly crowded orbits, a plethora of new satellite operators, and the future possibility of anti-satellite attacks — are rising every day.

Failure to address SSA needs, quite simply, will compromise the security of all U.S. satellites: commercial, civil and military. In deliberations on the 2008 defense budget request, Congress must force the Air Force to get serious about SSA by not only fully funding those efforts on the Unfunded Priorities List, but also by directing the service to provide a blueprint for improving capabilities in the near-term future, including a responsible budget.

Surely, $110 million can be found by trimming less critical programs in the Air Force’s whopping $110.7 billion 2008 budget request. Perhaps congressional scrutiny should start with the $5 billion requested for combat aircraft, including 20 F-22 Raptors, six F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and five V-22 Ospreys. At least that would focus the Air Force’s attention on the importance of the SSA problem.

Theresa Hitchens is director of the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information, and author of “Future Security in Space: Charting a Cooperative Course.”