WASHINGTON — With Congress still months away from agreeing on military funding levels for fiscal year 2018, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry continues to press the case that the prolonged political morass is having real national security impact.

In his latest “defense drumbeat” Oct. 20, Thornberry cautioned the budget impasse will keep the Air Force from acquiring additional Space-Based Infrared Warning System satellites, known as SBIRS. The delay is of concern, he noted, as North Korea keeps threatening to launch missile strikes on the United States and its allies.

This constellation is a “pillar of our nation’s ability to gather intelligence on, identify, and track missile launches around the globe,” the statement said. “The fact that North Korea has launched over 20 missiles this year, in addition to the increasingly sophisticated Iranian missile program, highlights how important these satellites are to our overall missile defense system.”

SBIRS includes satellites in geosynchronous earth orbit, sensors hosted on satellites in highly elliptical orbit and ground-based data processing and control. GEO satellites detect and track missile launches worldwide. The Air Force plans to field a constellation of four GEO satellites and a two hosted payload constellation in highly elliptical orbit, with a centralized ground station. Although the system is up and running, the Air Force has yet to procure all of the planned satellites to complete the constellation.

Under the temporary funding measure that Congress passed last month to keep government agencies in operation until an appropriations bill is signed, the SBIRS program is under-funded by nearly a billion dollars, Thornberry’s statement said. “And we risk a delay in the acquisition of the next two satellites.”

Each satellite costs about $900 million. A portion of the program to modernize the ground systems has yet to be funded, so it can’t get underway until a 2018 budget is signed into law.

The Air Force requested $1.4 billion in 2018 for SBIRS, a $862 million increase compared to the 2017 budget. The service also is seeking funds for “advance procurement” of satellites 7 and 8. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act adds $75 million above the president’s budget request for SBIRS, to pay for cybersecurity software and for antenna upgrades that were included in the Air Force’s unfunded priorities list.

The Senate passed a budget resolution Oct. 19 intended mostly to expedite tax reform legislation. It provides $549 billion for defense, $54 billion less than what the Pentagon requested and $86 billion less than what the Senate approved in its version of the NDAA. Defense hawks like Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain said they worry that the Pentagon cannot start new programs under a continuing resolution and still has no clarity on what the 2018 top line will be.

The SBIRS satellites are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Company spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said the company is under contract for GEO satellites 5 and 6, but the Air Force has yet to decide how to move forward with 7 and 8.

The GEO 3 satellite is scheduled to be delivered from storage for launch as early as November 2017, the Air Force said. SBIRS Flight 4 and the GEO 4 satellite was launched in January as SBIRS Flight 3. The GEO 5 and GEO 6 satellites are scheduled to reach orbit in 2021 and 2022 as replacements for GEO 1 and GEO 2 as their service lives are projected to run out.

The remote sensing systems directorate at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, oversees SBIRS development. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems as the payload integrator. The 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, operates the system.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...