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HOT TOPIC: Pentagon elated by 2018 appropriations. Can the good times last? Military space among the budget winners
Only six months ago, everyone in the building was saying that lifting the Budget Control Act spending caps “would be extraordinarily difficult,” recalled Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. “Pretty much the consensus was that it would not happen,” he said last week at the Center for a New American Security.
With Congress, always expect the unexpected. Lawmakers gave the Pentagon the largest year-to-year increase in base funding in 15 years. After President Trump signed the massive $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill March 23, Pentagon officials have gone out of their way to thank Congress. With $589.5 billion in base funding and $65.2 billion for overseas operations, DoD in 2018 gets $61 billion more than in 2017 and $15 billion more than the president had requested for 2018.
Shanahan said the extra money will be used to boost the military’s combat readiness, to “de-risk” programs of record and accelerate modernization. There will be more focus on “results and accountability.”
Defense industry consultant James McAleese, of McAleese & Associates, suggested the Pentagon will have to show “visible improvements” in modernization because this level of growth in spending could be a one-time deal. “There is growing belief that a potential 2020-2021 budget deal will not be as favorable to DoD,” McAleese wrote in an email to clients. Despite an initial focus on readiness, 2018 turned out to be the “year of modernization” with an “explosive 20+ percent spike” in investment accounts.
Many space programs received a plus-up: Weather Systems Follow-on; Operationally Responsive Space; space situational awareness; counter-space systems; GPS 3 space segment; GPS-OCX, classified space, EELV launches, the next-generation missile-warning spacecraft to replace SBIRS, and the Wideband Global SATCOM satellites — with a surprising $600 million add-on for two WGS satellites the Pentagon did not request.
Appropriators approved $3.5 billion for space procurement, a 33-percent increase, or nearly $1 billion over 2017 levels.
Because the budget was passed six months into the fiscal year, there were concerns the Pentagon would have to rush to spend the money — and possibly make poorly planned spending decisions — before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. But Congress made some allowances. The $3.5 billion space procurement funds “remain available for obligation until September 30, 2020.”
The military space sector is energized by the prospect of new programs, noted Bill Gattle, president of Harris Corp.’s Space and Intelligence Systems. He said the industry has not seen this kind of funding in nearly two decades.
Only five to 10 years ago, there was talk about the need to beef up military space systems. But it was just rhetoric, Gattle told SpaceNews. “At this point it’s moved from rhetoric to reality. It is impacting budgets, it is impacting our business.”
Wilson to Congress: We can modernize faster, but there are risks
Appropriators’ language in the omnibus bill reflects some underlying tension between the “go fast” philosophy embraced by DoD and military leaders, and skeptical lawmakers who would prefer a more cautious approach.
But you can’t have it both ways, cautioned Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. There is some risk involved in shifting money from the production of current designs into the development of next-generation satellites. If Congress wants faster and innovative space programs, the tradeoff will be less predictability and possibly some failures.
Wilson said the risks are justified. “We will explain to Congress that they call experiments ‘experiments’ for a reason.” Some projects won’t work, she said, “and you learn from them.”
Air Force and Congress don’t see eye-to-eye on JSTARS
Secretary Wilson calls it a “bold move”: cancel a $6.5 billion purchase of surveillance aircraft that is vulnerable to air defenses and shift that mission to a network dubbed “advanced battle management system.”
Instead of buying a new aircraft to replace the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, the Air Force would invest in an integrated sensor network that brings in data from aerial, ground, naval and space systems.
The Trump administration’s national defense strategy directs the military to focus on “contested environments.” That means figuring out how to fight in places that are within the range of Chinese or Russian surface-to-air missiles. That would make JSTARS a nonstarter, argued Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. “They know what our asymmetric advantages are and they’ve invested in capabilities to take those away from us.” Their strategy is to “hold us off at ranges where we can either no longer perform our mission.”
But recent exchanges on Capitol Hill suggest the Air Force is having a hard time selling this vision. Lawmakers who represent JSTARS bases and contractors are pushing back hard. Others don’t really understand what the Air Force wants to do. And because JSTARS supports troops on the ground, the debate appears to be turning into a repeat of the A-10 Thunderbolt II; Air Force leaders wanted to retire the close-air support aircraft but Congress has stubbornly kept it alive.
Defense analysts endorse small satellites for future military
A prominent national security think tank is recommending that the Pentagon rethink its space investments. In a report titled “Building the Future Force: Guaranteeing American Leadership in a Contested Environment,” the Center for a New American Security warns that the spread of advanced technologies has allowed state competitors to challenge U.S. military advantages. In a conflict against a peer competitor, the study said, the U.S. military will be at a disadvantage without a “resilient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance architecture.”
One problem is that current space and airborne sensors do not provide sufficient around-the-clock coverage. Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites can spend a few hours over a target area. Drones can spend several days above a target. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) can provide continuous coverage of designated target areas. But there are not enough GEO satellites to fully offset LEO satellites and airborne ISR limitations.
The answer is to develop lower-cost constellations. “Small satellites should make up the core of the future LEO ISR satellite network,” CNAS suggested. “These satellites range in size from .25 to 400 pounds and cost as little as $150,000.”
ISR constellations could be made up of thousands of small satellites. “Within each constellation, sets of small satellites would be assigned to perform each of the tasks previously done by single, expensive satellites. The sheer number of satellites would also allow each constellation to observe a far larger target set than previously feasible.”
Air staff rolls out welcome mat for three-star space commander
Air Force Space Command’s Gen. John ‘Jay’ Raymond now has a three-star deputy in the Pentagon doing the “lifting” for him. Lt. Gen. David Thompson, formerly deputy commander of Space Command and most recently Raymond’s special assistant, is being sworn in this week into the new position of vice commander of Air Force Space Command to be based in the Pentagon.
“We’re pretty excited” to have Thompson as a “forward based” officer representing Space Command, said Goldfein, the chief of staff. “I really need General Raymond focused on running his command.”
A three-star Space Command official at the Pentagon was not the Air Force’s original plan. Military space watchers will recall that a year ago the service announced it would name a three-star deputy chief of staff for space operations, the A11 on the air staff. Service leaders argued the A11 would make sure space received proper attention and resources. Thompson at the time was identified as the likely A11. But Congress nixed that plan in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
Space Force: A few caveats and concerns
“If they want to move forward with a Space Force, it will take a lot of years and a lot of effort,” warned Michael Dodge, assistant professor and director of graduate studies at the University of North Dakota’s Department of Space Studies.
Dodge and other experts worry that the Space Force could become too much of a distraction. The administration and Congress have to decide, first and foremost, whether the space regime truly needs a separate force, he said in a recent interview. And if the answer is yes, can they justify the headache that they would have to go through in order to create one?
“If they were going to do it, I would recommend proceeding cautiously,” Dodge said. “In particularly, I would want to hear the opinions of the Air Force on how they think this might impact national security. That can’t be taken lightly.”
“Are we giving the perception that we are escalating the peaceful environment of space?” he asked. Even if the U.S. doesn’t put any weapons in space, standing up a space force could be interpreted as escalation.