U.S. Capitol

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders on Thursday agreed to fund the federal government until Dec. 22 while parties continue to hash out major disagreements over spending priorities.

A stopgap measure means the Defense Department must continue to operate at the 2017 base budget level of $523.2 billion, far less than the $574.5 billion requested by the Trump administration for the 2018 budget year that began Oct. 1.

The temporary funding also means the Pentagon cannot start new procurements or technology development programs. Further complicating the negotiations is that for the Pentagon to get the $574.5 billion requested for 2018, Congress would have to lift spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. For defense, the cap is $549 billion.

The Pentagon’s comptroller, David Norquist, told reporters Thursday that these short-term funding measures are “band-aid steps” that disrupt military plans to buy equipment it needs to modernize. “One of the challenges under a continuing resolution is that we’re still well below the required number in the president’s budget.”

All this is bad news for the Air Force’s 2018 space investment budget. Service officials have touted the $7.75 billion request — about 20 percent more than the Air Force spent in fiscal year 2017 — as essential to start developing new technologies in three major focus areas: space superiority, space support to operations, and assured access to space.

The extended CR means “everything is just on hold,” said budget analyst Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If a full-year budget deal is reached before Christmas, the Pentagon should be able to get programs moving again in January. But if a CR extends past January, programs could be doomed. “The Pentagon is smart about this,” Harrison told reporters Thursday. “They anticipate. They know it would be foolish to plan a new start in the first quarter of the fiscal year,” he said.

“That’s minimal impact. But when you get into the second quarter it’s harder. You can’t backload everything into the last week,” Harrison said. “The longer you go past January, you see exponential impact on contracts.”

Space vs. aviation

Space projects face big unknowns, even more so than other military priorities because they compete for funding with aviation procurements. “All those space programs that were going to start ramping up can’t happen without a budget deal,” Harrison told SpaceNews.

Some next-generation satellite programs weren’t scheduled to start production anyway, but they still need funding to continue development and testing. If the Air Force doesn’t get the increase it requested, space programs will suffer, Harrison said. “Absolutely there will be pressure on space programs.”

Harrison recalled that when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson came to CSIS in October to deliver a speech, he asked her about the service’s acquisition priorities. “She named a bunch of aircraft programs,” Harrison said. “There were no space programs in that list of priorities,” he said.

“If push comes to shove and they don’t get all the resources they’re looking for, I think the Air Force is going to focus on air power,” he said

The Air Force has struggled for years to beef up its aircraft inventory, which plunged by 44 percent from 1986 to 2016. “While the Air Force has warned of readiness issues and a pilot shortage, one of the main challenges facing the service over the coming years is its modernization plans,” said Harrison. Priorities include the F-35A fighter jet, the B-21 bomber, the KC-46A tanker, the T-X trainer aircraft, a new intercontinental ballistic missile and a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile. It also has plans to begin new programs for several satellite constellations, including a new missile-warning system, a modernized GPS, protected communications and wideband communications.

Star Wars redux?

Harrison pointed out that Congress has directed the Pentagon to study the possibility of deploying a space-based missile-defense system, a complex and costly technology that sounds a lot like the second coming of the Reagan administration’s “Brilliant Pebbles” star wars vision.

It is hard to imagine how this is technologically doable, let alone how it gets funded, Harrison said.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act asks for a study on whether a space-based missile intercept system could be fielded by 2022. It specifies a “boost phase” interceptor which is the hardest to do from space, said Harrison. “You’ll need a massive constellation of satellites to do that. If you run the numbers, it’s probably over 1,000 satellites to be able to intercept ballistic missiles one at a time. If a country launched two missiles from the same place at the same time you would need to double the size of your constellation.”

It does make sense, however, to deploy a layer of space sensors for tracking and target discrimination, Harrison said. “That is the one investment that could improve the performance of all our missile defense systems,” he said. “The best way to do that on a continuous basis is from space, with satellites in lower orbit that are just looking and sensing. You only need a few dozen small satellites to provide continuous coverage.”

Amid the protracted battle over government spending, questions continue to be raised about President Trump’s promised military buildup.

Increasingly, it looks like an unrealistic target. The 2018 budget, although higher than 2017 spending levels, is “not a budget that you could grow the military under,” said Harrison. “Zero growth with inflation means you have to reduce the size of the force” because personnel costs continue to go up unchecked.

Trump could end up with a similar track record as former President Obama, who submitted many defense budget proposals that were higher than what Congress ended up appropriating.

Harrison suggested that Trump’s big defense buildup dreams could wind up crashing like President Reagan’s, who was “shooting for the stars” but saw military budgets go down every year during this second term.

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...