Updated Feb. 9 at 1:06 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department’s plan to accelerate the development of space surveillance satellites was driven by threats that sources say have mushroomed in the past 18 months.
The White House’s budget request for 2016, released Feb. 2, speeds the delivery timetable for a follow-on to the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) Block 10 satellite, which operates in low Earth orbit but keeps tabs on maneuvers in geostationary orbit. The request also seeks to speed up planned improvements to the Defense Department’s space operations management center, which processes space surveillance data, and to upgrade a satellite jamming system.
“In the last year we have seen serious growing threats in space, and I’m glad to see the [Defense Department] take initial steps to respond to these threats in this budget,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees military space programs, said in a Feb. 5 email. “But more must be done.”
Senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials have attributed what they say is a growing threat largely to China and Russia.
Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a speech here Feb. 6 that space situational awareness was especially important following an anti-satellite test by the Chinese in 2007 and two separate, unspecified events from the past 24 months.
In addition, one congressional staffer told SpaceNews that the full House Armed Services Committee has had more classified briefings on the space threat in the past 18 months than at any time in the past decade.
The White House acknowledged the dangers in an overview of the federal budget request.
“The Budget supports a variety of measures to help assure the use of space in the face of increasing threats to U.S. national security space systems,” the overview document, prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget, said. “The Budget also supports the development of capabilities to defend and enhance the resilience of these space systems. These capabilities help deter and defeat interference with, and attacks on, U.S. space systems.”
A separate budget overview document for the Defense Department said military leaders “must address both current and emerging challenges” that include “threats to space assets.”
That concern was immediately evident in the push to accelerate the planned launch of the SBSS Block 10 follow-on satellites from 2021 to late 2020. SBSS Block 10, which is used to keep tabs on the geostationary orbit arc, where U.S. satellites providing critical missile warning and strategic communications services reside, was launched in 2010 and expected to operate until 2017.
Documents indicate the Air Force plans to spend $365 million on the follow-on satellite from 2016 to 2019, up from $251 million in last year’s planning guidance.
The White House also is asking to accelerate delivery of upgraded capabilities to the Air Force-led Joint Space Operations Center, the nerve center of U.S. military space activities that supports operations including launch and satellite maneuvers. The Air Force is in the midst of an upgrade to that facility, hosted at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, that entails replacing antiquated network infrastructure and preparing it to ingest data from a wider variety of sensors, both internal and external to the Pentagon.
Budget documents specifically cite the third element of the upgrade, known as Increment 3, that includes a “battle management command, control and communications infrastructure” that would allow the service to “meet emerging threats.” Increment 3 would also bolster the Defense Department’s space event monitoring, planning, tasking, execution and post-event assessments.
The improvements would allow the Air Force to better “identify, characterize and attribute all threatening actions,” an Air Force budget document said. Air Force planning documents show the service now expects to spend $33 million more on the program through 2019 than it did at this time last year.
The budget request also includes an upgrade to the Counter Communication Satellite System, which is used to jam and disrupt signals from satellites being used against U.S. forces.
It also includes a new start for a program called Bounty Hunter, which is described in budget documents as a space control system that would prevent enemies from effectively receiving situational awareness information. Mitre Corp. is expected to receive a $1.7 million contract to develop the technology.