April 16, 2013
Credit: Ball Aerospace
The U.S. Air Force is prioritizing continued improvements in its ability to surveil activities in space and keeping up production of existing satellites over developing new spacecraft in its fiscal 2014 budget request, which was sent last week to Congress.
The service’s unclassified request is $6.5 billion in fiscal 2014, reflecting its quandary of continuing with programs despite a flat topline and cuts owing to sequestration. The Air Force’s space program is at a crossroads. After a decade of tumultuous developments – including billions of dollars of cost overruns and repeated in-service delays – the missile warning and military satellite communications projects are starting to deliver capability. “You are seeing a turning around from the environment where, year after year, the question was how much was the cost growth going to be on the space programs,” says acting Air Force Under Secretary Jamie Morin. “Just as that ground is firming under our feet, we are grappling with that sequestration challenge, which is obviously producing massive turmoil.”
Air Force Gen. William Shelton is prioritizing improvements in space situational awareness (SSA), a subject he emphasized heavily at last week’s 29th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
But the service is once again foregoing plans to begin developing a replacement for the Boeing/Ball Aerospace Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite. This gimbaled, electro-optical system was launched in 2010 and is collecting intelligence on objects in geosynchronous orbit. The follow-on has been “deferred” beyond fiscal 2018, says Jamie Morin, acting Air Force under secretary. The mission duration of the existing SBSS satellite has been “revised upwards,” he says, noting that gives the service more time to plan for a new spacecraft.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has requested about $400 million in unclassified budget authority for various other space situational awareness (SSA) programs, including efforts to improve the Space Fence and upgrade the Joint Space Operations Center.
“The Space Fence is as solid as any program can be,” Morin told reporters during an April 15 briefing on the Air Force space budget. The first increment, or sensor, is being placed on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. Funding, however, for a second site has not been planned; it was passed over in favor of other service priorities.
Service officials are requesting $300 million over the next five years – between $50 million - $68 million annually – for the Jspoc Mission System upgrade. The program is designed to refurbish aging computers and displays used for tracking objects – satellites and debris – in space. Today’s consoles had a life expectancy that expired in 2002 and are thus long overdue for an overhaul, says Morin.