WASHINGTON — Military satellite procurements for strategic defense and communications are drawing increased funding and congressional scrutiny. These are the largest satellite acquisitions planned by the U.S. Space Force over the next several years and “represent a fundamental departure from how DoD has historically carried out these critical missions,” says a new report by the Aerospace Corp. published June 22.

A proposed budget of $30.3 billion for 2024 is the Space Force’s largest ever, nearly doubling the service’s first budget request four years ago.

“The increase supports growth in next-generation nuclear command and control spacecraft, which will look much different than their predecessors, and reflects the administration’s push toward more space assets in lower orbits,” according to the report by analyst Sam Wilson, of the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy.

Some takeaways from the report:

  • The increase in this year’s request and planned growth for future years highlights long-term changes and new priorities for how the department is approaching many of its defense space missions. 
  • Critical next-generation defense space systems, such as nuclear command and control satellites, will consume a significant portion of the Space Force budget in the years to come. 
  • Next-generation nuclear command and control systems will look much different than their predecessors, with the number of some of the satellites increasing and the roles of some of the spacecraft splintering. 
  • DoD is advocating for more spacecraft in lower orbits although it will continue to rely on higher orbit systems for many missions.

Space assets for nuclear command and control include missile warning infrared sensing spacecraft, as well as satellites that transmit messages to and from nuclear forces and between senior leaders in the event of a nuclear war.

A new program called Evolved Strategic Satcom, and two families of missile-warning programs — Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared and Resilient Missile Warning and Tracking, collectively make up nearly half of the entire Space Force’s research and development budget through fiscal year 2028, Wilson points out.

The ESS satcom program is a dedicated constellation for nuclear command and control. By contract, DoD today uses satellites for both strategic communications and tactical communications. 

“With the next-generation systems, this dual function of the satellites will go away,” writes Wilson.

DoD’s next-generation missile warning programs also represent a fundamental shift for the department, he adds. “For several decades, DoD has used a small number of systems in high orbit for missile warning. For the next generation of programs, the department is beginning to pivot to an architecture with a larger number of assets in lower orbit.”

The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR) and the Resilient Missile Warning and Missile Tracking (MW/MT) systems collectively make up for nearly $5 billion of the Space Force’s 2024 request. 

DoD in the 2024 budget is accelerating a pivot to lower orbit, adding funds for MW/MT in low and medium orbits, and cutting one of three previously planned Next Gen OPIR geostationary satellites.

Wilson notes that Congress has been a strong supporter of the shift to lower orbits and has increased funding for the Space Development Agency that is leading these efforts. However, Congress has raised concerns about costs and criticized the Space Force for not providing sufficient information on the risks associated with the new architecture. 

House appropriators challenge Space Force plan

During last week’s markup of the defense budget, the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee challenged DoD’s plans to eliminate a Next Gen OPIR satellite.

Next Gen OPIR “is a critical component of the strategic missile warning and nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) enterprise,” said a HAC-D report accompanying its markup of the 2024 budget.

“The Committee is troubled by the lack of analysis to support the proposal to cancel the GEO–3 spacecraft, especially given its importance to the NC3 mission.”

The HAC-D “understands the Space Force is pivoting to more resilient, proliferated space architectures, and strongly supports those initiatives. Yet the Department of Defense has not addressed how these new architectures will meet the NC3 mission needs, and if not, how the NC3 mission needs will be met after the Next Gen OPIR program.”

Appropriators direct DoD and the Department of the Air Force to report back with answers on these questions. 

The full House Appropriations Committee is marking up the defense spending bill June 22. 

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...