WASHINGTON — Expansion of well-established programs, in one case at the expense of a high-profile development effort, is the story behind the U.S. Air Force spending plan for unclassified space activities over the next five years.
The service is requesting nearly $12 billion for space programs in 2009, a 5 percent increase over the current-year funding level. This continues a steady climb in Air Force space spending driven by the ongoing recapitalization of its main satellite constellations.
The most significant feature in the latest spending plan is satellites for secure communications and missile warning that were not included in the Air Force budget submitted to Congress last year. The funding increases required to build and launch those satellites are
offset in part by a reduced spending profile for the futuristic Transformational Satellite Communications system, also known as T-Sat.
“It’s clear this budget does a reasonably good job of funding military space programs,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank here. “The two big transformation initiatives of the [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld era are not being funded to the degree planned and probably are not going to survive – those initiatives being the Space Radar and [T-Sat] programs.”
The budget for Space Radar, a joint Air Force-National Reconnaissance Office surveillance program, is classified.
The Air Force had hoped to begin launching the T-Sat satellites, equipped with laser links and Internet routers to provide U.S. forces with a much-needed boost in bandwidth, in 2015. Plans now call for launching the first satellite no earlier than 2016, and this is reflected in a T-Sat budget request for 2009 that is some $385 million less than the Air Force anticipated it would need at this time last year.
In the spending plan that accompanied the Air Force’s 2008 funding request, T-Sat was to have received $11.6 billion over a five-year period ending in 2012; in the latest spending plan, the program would receive $6.6 billion from 2009 to 2013.
The revised T-Sat plan was spurred in large part by a congressional directive last year that the Air Force buy a fourth satellite in the preceding series, known as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system. In a related move, lawmakers trimmed more than $150 million from the service’s request for T-Sat in 2008. The Air Force had hoped to deploy three AEHF satellites before moving on to T-Sat.
The 2009 budget request includes a relatively small increase in the AEHF account – relative to previous plans – to begin buying parts for a fourth satellite. But the real impact of Congress’ order can be seen in the 2010 budget projection, where the AEHF line is roughly $1 billion higher than was anticipated at this time last year.
Deferring by one year the bulk of the funding for AEHF-4 is a departure from Air Force procurement policy, which requires that satellites be fully funded up front beginning with the fourth in any series.
Gary Payton, undersecretary of the Air Force for space, said the AEHF procurement schedule was dictated by the on-orbit health of the current constellation of secure communications satellites, known as Milstar. “That was not a cavalier decision to put [AEHF-4] in 2010,” Payton said in a Feb. 6 interview. “If you look at the demise of Milstar satellites, you don’t need to fund it in 2009.
2010 is much better.”
One U.S. lawmaker, Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee,
already has made clear he is unhappy with the direction the T-Sat program has taken. “Both the House and Senate Armed Services
committees fully supported T-Sat,” Everett said Feb. 7 in a speech at a space conference here. “I was, therefore, disappointed with the $150 million cut by the appropriators. I am equally disappointed by the [Defense] Department’s decision to cut $4 billion from the program because so many other defense programs are relying on T-Sat …”
Another program whose funding profile has changed significantly
is the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning constellation. The SBIRS request for 2009 is down about $145 million from what was expected at this time last year. But for 2010 and beyond, the profile is significantly higher, reflecting $400 million in cost growth due to a software problem disclosed in 2007 and
the Air Force decision to buy a fourth geosynchronous satellite in the series.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has refocused a missile warning program hatched two years ago as a possible early replacement for SBIRS, which has a long history of trouble.
The Alternate Infrared Satellite System has been renamed the Third Generation Infrared Surveillance System and now is
envisioned as a follow on to SBIRS – as opposed to a stopgap replacement.
The 2009 spending plan also reflects an increase in the number of payloads the Pentagon plans to launch in the next several years. The 2009 request for the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program is $172 million higher than anticipated last year, and up nearly $730 million over the next five years.
In a written response to questions, the Air Force said the increase is driven in part by the addition of three payloads to the launch manifest: AEHF-4 and a pair of classified payloads designated AFSPC-2 and AFSPC-4. “In addition to funding these three newly identified missions, the … request also includes full funding for out-year missions that were under review during the  budget preparation cycle,” the Air Force said.
“The bottom line in the military space budget is that if it was something Rumsfeld invented, it’s probably not going to happen,” Thompson said. “But if it’s something that predated the Rumsfeld era, it’s going to go forward and reach orbit and be a good replacement for
Colin Clark contributed to this story from Washington.