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HOT TOPIC: New direction for DoD space investments. Pentagon 2019 budget proposal ‘pivots’ to next-generation satellites

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. (Credit: USAF)
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. (Credit: USAF)

It had been hinted for months that the Trump administration’s FY-19 defense budget would make serious investments in military space in response to growing threats from Russia and China. An initial look at the budget documents released on Monday reveals that spending on space is up only modestly but that priorities appear to be shifting. The request includes $9.3 billion for military space programs — $4.8 billion for satellites, $2.4 billion for launch vehicles and $2.1 billion for maintenance and support. Officials said this budget marks a “pivot” from investments in systems that were built for an era when the United States was unchallenged in outer space to a future when adversaries could threaten U.S. access and freedom to operate in space.

“We are in a more dangerous security environment than we have seen in a generation,” said Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force budget director. The new mantra is “defendable space.”

Pletcher said the Air Force’s space budget is up 8 percent, even though the service is cutting procurement of space systems by more than a billion dollars. The Air Force’s $2.5 billion space procurement request is down from $3.4 billion a year ago. The growth is in research, development and operations. The Air Force increased R&D for a new missile-warning constellation from $71 million to $643 million, and added $452 million for the development of a new GPS 3 satellite. In the operations and maintenance account, it included $8.5 billion for space forces — up from $7.2 billion in 2018.

Air Force spokesman Maj. Will Russell told SpaceNews that the new plan for SBIRS is to ensure a “survivable missile warning capability by the mid-2020s to counter adversary advances.” The funding for procurement of SBIRS space vehicles 7 and 8 are transitioning to the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) effort. The Air Force is ramping up the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) program to modernize the ground segment for the Next-Generation OPIR system. The Next-Generation OPIR funding has been aligned within a single program element and separated into two projects for space and ground efforts.

Also notable in the FY-19 budget are funding lines for “fast tracking” technologies from the commercial market, pointed out industry consultant Mike Tierney, of Jacques & Associates. There is a new, dedicated Air Force procurement funding line to acquire small launch services and a major increase for the Space Rapid Capabilities Office (formerly Operationally Responsive Space): up to $378.5 million from a previously projected level of only $82.8 million. A new $47.6 million procurement funding line for the Rocket Systems Launch Program funds the acquisition of small launchers capable of lifting 0 to 8,000 lbs. to low Earth orbit through geostationary transfer orbit.

Tierney said these funding lines for rapid capabilities and for small launch have long been awaited by commercial vendors. “It’s what the industry has wanted to see for a long time in program and in budget,” he said. “It’s a major step forward.” The Operationally Responsive Space Office was one of those organizations that never seemed to get going even though Air Force leaders continued to promise that the service needed innovative technologies from the commercial market. With this budget, Tierney said, “It’s astonishing to see the Air Force embracing the rhetoric and putting dollars behind it.”

How long until Falcon Heavy flies DoD missions?

The U.S. Air Force will have to certify SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy before it can compete for lucrative U.S. national security launch contracts. Certification could take as many as 14 or as few as two flights, a spokesperson for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command, in Los Angeles, told SpaceNews. For new rockets like the Falcon Heavy, there are many variables at play, such as the confidence the government has in the design and its record flying commercial payloads into orbit.

The process is laid out in detail in the U.S. Air Force Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide published in 2011. The Air Force calls it a “risk-based approach” with four certification options based on the maturity of the launch system. These options require as many as 14 flights, or as few as two. With fewer flights there would be more in-depth technical evaluations.

Once the Air Force signs off on the company’s “statement of intent,” the government and SpaceX would negotiate a certification plan under a formal agreement. The Air Force would then conduct a technical evaluation and detailed analysis of the launch vehicle design and a review of the company’s manufacturing and system engineering processes. It also would analyze data from the rocket’s flight history.


Lockheed Martin targets space entrepreneurs

The Hellas-Sat-4 communications satellite after spacecraft integration in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver.
The Hellas-Sat-4 communications satellite after spacecraft integration in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver.

Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest military contractor, rolled out a new initiative last week to attract “aspiring space technologists.” It has decided to publicly release the technical specifications of its satellite platforms in a bid to attract “companies aspiring to send innovative technologies to space.”

“This is intended to help people connect to our buses,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Mark Lewis told SpaceNews. “If developers know the specs in advance, that speeds up their development and integration time.”

Lockheed is only interested in non-proprietary ideas and products. “We’re pretty open to all types of technologies, ranging from helping first responders address crises faster, studying the environment, creating ultra-high-capacity communications links and adapting low-cost commercial technology to the punishing environments of space. We’re open to any concept, and we’ll look for the best matches for our customers.”

ICYMI: DARPA competition focuses on ‘responsive launch’

DARPA Launch Challenge
An illustration on DARPA’s website outlines its concept for a prize competition for small, responsive launch vehicles, to be announced in April. (Credit: DARPA)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is planning a competition offering prizes for responsive launch systems. The DARPA Launch Challenge won’t be formally announced until April, but Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said it is part of an effort to harness growing commercial capabilities to address threats to national security space assets.

“How do we build less-expensive systems on rapid timescales? How do we re-inject a sense of innovation into national security space and, frankly, all of space?” he said. “We want to be able to enable proliferation and disaggregation of our systems.”

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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...