U.S. Air Force Scales Back Missile Warning Technology Program

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WASHINGTON — The trend over the last several years of annual funding increases for U.S. Air Force space activity appears to be at an end, and that, coupled with the ongoing recapitalization of the service’s operational satellite fleets, means there is little money left for new development initiatives.

The service’s 2011 budget request, submitted to Congress Feb. 1, scales back the Third Generation Infrared Surveillance (TGIRS) program and curbs funding for the Operationally Responsive Space Office. This follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision early last year to cancel the $26 billion Transformational Satellite communications system.

Overall, the request includes $8 billion for procurement and research and development for space programs, an 8 percent decrease from 2010, budget documents show. The total Air Force budget request for 2011 is $170.8 billion, up 3 percent from this year’s budget.

“The space budget is dominated by [research and development] and procurement,” Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, said during a Feb. 4 media event here. “Everybody’s budget for procurement and [research and development] is going down a little bit, especially compared to 2008, 2009 and 2010, and space is part of that. It shows up more in the space budget because we have such a small part that is [operations and maintenance].” 

TGIRS, originally called the Alternative Infrared Satellite System, was conceived as a potential alternative to the long-troubled Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and featured sensor development efforts by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and SAIC of McLean, Va. SBIRS is nearly a decade behind schedule, but the first dedicated satellite recently completed thermal vacuum testing and is on track for an early 2011 launch.

Two years ago, the Air Force designated TGIRS as a technology development effort but continued work on the sensors. The service subsequently contracted to have the SAIC sensor launched as a hosted payload aboard a commercial communications satellite, and more recently tapped Raytheon to flight qualify its sensor.

Raytheon’s work has now been canceled, but the effort to fly the SAIC sensor on a spacecraft owned by SES Americom will continue, Marilyn Thomas, the Air Force’s budget deputy, said during a Feb. 1 media briefing. That portion of TGIRS will be funded out of the SBIRS budget, she said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office would receive $94 million next year, $30.3 million less than was appropriated for this year. The office’s biggest project, an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellite called ORS-1, is still on track for a late-2010 launch and will not be affected. However, the office’s investments in so-called enabler technologies for building and launching satellites on short notice would be slowed, Payton said.

With the space environment becoming ever more congested and potentially contested, the Air Force last year began investing more heavily in space situational awareness, which refers to the ability to know where things are in space and what they are doing. The Air Force is requesting $426.5 million for space situational awareness programs in 2011, a $188.1 million increase over this year. Two programs would receive the bulk of that funding:  upgrades to a network of ground-based radars known as the Space Fence, and a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which is slated to launch in June.

Congress trimmed by about a third the Air Force’s $90 million request for Space Fence upgrades in 2010, which has added some uncertainty to the program, Payton said. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are studying the upgrades under risk-reduction contracts, and a prime contractor is expected to be chosen this summer, Air Force budget documents show. The service will also choose a contractor for the next Space Based Space Surveillance satellite this year.

The big-ticket items in the Air Force’s 2011 budget request are for operational programs already under contract. The service would purchase a fourth SBIRS satellite and long-lead parts for the fifth from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., budget documents show. It would also continue development of the GPS 3 satellite navigation system, also by Lockheed Martin.

The budget includes funds for a seventh satellite in its Wideband Global Satcom constellation as well as long-lead parts for the eighth satellite from prime contractor Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif. The Air Force, using Navy funds, also would purchase a fifth Mobile User Objective System narrowband communications satellite from Lockheed Martin.