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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, last week reminded lawmakers that hundreds of millions of dollars above what’s in the budget are still needed to accelerate the schedule of the early warning satellite constellation known as next-gen OPIR, or overhead persistent infrared.

Next-gen OPIR is “an extremely important program and I’m happy to see that it’s advancing,” Thompson told Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, during a hearing last week.

BIG BUDGET FOR OPIR The Air Force is requesting $1.4 billion for fiscal year 2020:
•  $817 million for the development of three Block 0 geosynchronous missile-warning satellites being built by Lockheed Martin.
•  $107 million for two polar-orbiting satellites to be made by Northrop Grumman.
•  $264 million for ground systems and $205 million for studies of future parts and material obsolescence.

The Air Force projects large funding increases for next-gen OPIR over the next several years to speed up development and production: $2 billion in 2021, $2.2 billion in 2022, $2.6 billion in 2023, and $3 billion in 2024.

Next-gen OPIR will supplement and/or replace the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites Lockheed Martin has been building for decades. The first OPIR Block 0 GEO satellite will be fielded in 2025 and the first polar satellite by 2027.

Thompson said the FY20 budget and beyond “fully supports” the 2025 deadline. But the Air Force still needs $632 million to be reprogrammed into its 2019 budget to fill funding holes.

WHY MORE MONEY? Next-gen OPIR is $632 million short of what the Air Force says it needs this year to be able to meet an initial launch capability of 2025 for the first satellite. The Air Force in FY18 had requested an additional $344 million above what had been budgeted for next-gen OPIR but only $112 million was appropriated, leaving a remaining unfunded balance of $232 million. Adding that shortfall to the $400 million unfunded requirement in 2019 brings the total reprogramming request to $632 million.

FUNDS FOR PAYLOADS Of the $632 million reprogramming request, more than half is for the payload. The other half is to increase spacecraft development personnel to support systems engineering, procurement of long-lead components and the designing and building of bus components, an Air Force spokesman said.

Thompson noted that the 2025 initial launch capability is two years later than the Air Force had hoped. “We originally envisioned being able to go as fast as 2023,” he said. But the cost of doing that was too much. “We’re just not able to make it to that gold medal level.”

But the Air Force nevertheless managed to accelerate the program compared to its original target delivery in 2029. U.S. Strategic Command’s Gen. John Hyten in 2017 called on the Air Force to accelerate the program because more advanced satellites are needed to counter anti-satellite threats.

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...