Space Force’s 2021 budget plan is heavy on satellites and launch

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The $15.4 billion request for the U.S. Space Force contains $10.3 billion for research, development, testing and evaluation of space systems, a funding category known as RDT&E. It seeks $2.4 billion for the procurement of satellites, ground equipment and launch services; $2.6 billion for space operations, troop training and equipment maintenance, and approximately $100 million for war-related satellite services and space operations.

Here’s an analysis of the proposed budget’s high points:

Missile warning satellites

The Space Force is requesting $2.3 billion in 2021 to continue the development of the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) constellation. These satellites provide initial missile warning of a ballistic missile attack on the United States, deployed forces and allies.

The first Next-Gen OPIR constellation, known as Block 0, will have three geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and two Polar satellites. The prime contractors are Lockheed Martin for the GEO satellites and Northrop Grumman for the polar satellites.

The Next-Gen OPIR system will augment and eventually replace the existing Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites. The two final spacecraft in the SBIRS constellation, made by Lockheed Martin, are scheduled to launch in 2021 and 2022. The Air Force in 2017 decided to end the production of new SBIRS satellites and transition to Next-Gen OPIR which was designed to be more survivable against electronic and cyberattacks.

The first Next-Gen OPIR GEO satellite will be delivered in 2025 and the first Polar satellite in 2027, according to budget documents. All five Block 0 satellites are expected to be on orbit by 2029.

The budget includes $498 million for the Next-Gen OPIR ground system, also known as Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE). Raytheon was selected in January to develop the FORGE operating system for data processing.

Global Positioning System

The budget includes $628 million to acquire two more next-generation positioning, navigation and timing satellites — called GPS 3 Follow-On — from Lockheed Martin. The company is under contract to produce 10 GPS 3 satellites and 22 GPS 3 Follow-On models. The first two GPS 3 satellites are already in operation. The third satellite is scheduled to launch in April.

The GPS 3 Follow-On version starts with the 11th satellite. It has a more advanced navigation payload made by L3Harris.

There is $390 million in the budget for the development of GPS user equipment — receivers, antennas, antenna electronics and other related equipment — used to derive navigation and timing information transmitted from GPS satellites.

The budget has $482 million to continue the development of the GPS next-generation Operational Control System (OCX), a program that is years behind schedule. The prime contractor Raytheon has delivered the Block 0 version of the ground system and is working to deliver Block 1 in 2021.

National Security Space Launch

The National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program acquires launch services from private companies to fly the nation’s military and spy satellites. In 2021, the budget includes $1.05 billion to fund three Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) missions code named AFSPC-36, AFSPC-87 and AFSPC-112.

There is also $560 million in the budget to continue to fund public-private Launch Service Agreement (LSA) partnerships the Air Force signed in 2018 with three launch providers — United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — to upgrade their launch systems and facilities to meet NSSL requirements. The three companies in the LSA program and SpaceX are competing for Launch Service Procurement five-year contracts the Space Force will award in mid-2020 to two of the four companies.

For launches of smaller payloads, the budget provides $47 million for the Rocket Systems Launch Program. The RSLP program acquires dedicated spacelift and rideshare services for experimental satellites and other small vehicles.

Enterprise ground system

The budget requests $116 million for the Enterprise Ground Services (EGS), a multiyear program to develop an open-architecture system for DoD satellites. The EGS later this decade will become the primary ground command and control suite of military constellations.

The funding is to start developing software applications to support the transition of legacy and new missions — such as missile warning, missile defense, satellite communications, space situational awareness and various classified and experimental satellites — to the EGS open architecture.

Satellite communications

The 2021 budget continues to fund development of a new tactical communications system that the Air Force started in 2018. The Protected Tactical Service (PTS) is being designed with advanced anti-jam security features for military and government use.

The Space Force is requesting $205 million for the PTS program, which includes space, ground and gateway segments. For the space segment, the plan is to select up to four prototype payloads that could be hosted by a military or commercial satellite. Northrop Grumman recently was the first company selected to build a PTS payload.

The budget also seeks $114 million for a Protected Tactical Enterprise Service (PTES) ground system that will use a Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW) for secure communications via military and commercial satellite systems. Initially, PTES will use the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system and will be expanded later to include commercial satellites and the PTS satellites.

For strategic satcom — highly secure communications intended for nuclear command-and-control — the Space Force is pursuing the Evolved Strategic Satcom (ESS) program. ESS is intended to replace the nuclear-hardened Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites. Lockheed Martin delivered the sixth and final AEHF last month for a scheduled March launch. The budget seeks $71 million for ESS.

The budget also requests $190 million to continue the development of the Enhanced Polar System (EPS) to provide protected communications near the North Pole. The U.S. Air Force signed an agreement with the Norwegian Ministry of Defense to host two EPS-Recapitalization (EPS-R) payloads on Space Norway spacecraft. Northrop Grumman is developing two Extremely High Frequency payloads for this program.

The Space Force did not request funds to buy new WGS satellites and continues to study ways to tap the commercial industry to supplement military satcom. Congress in 2018 funded the 11th satellite of the WGS constellation which is the projected to be the last one. Boeing is under contract to deliver WGS-11 by 2024.

Congress in 2019 created a new program line in the Air Force’s budget for the integration of commercial satcom to augment wideband services to the military. Appropriators inserted $49 million in 2019 to start the effort and added $5 million in 2020.

In the 2021 budget, the Space Force moved the commercial satcom integration program into a new budget line called “Fighting Satcom Enterprise” and is requesting $43 million. The funds will be used, according to budget documents, to “integrate the tools to provide satcom capability to global warfighters … improve resilience and operational agility by leveraging DoD and commercial systems.”

Budget analyst and industry consultant Mike Tierney, of Velos, told SpaceNews that the Fighting Satcom program line is a positive development for the commercial industry because it provides funding for integration efforts. But it is concerning that the Space Force sees commercial satcom only “as an element of a protected military system,” Tierney said.

“We still have questions on where this fits into the bigger architecture,” Tierney said.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.