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Pentagon, House Chart Stable Funding Course for Space Programs

WASHINGTON — Funding for major U.S. military space programs appears to be on a relatively stable course despite continued uncertainty about the 2013 fiscal year — now nearly two-thirds over — and a constrained outlook for 2014.

Of the big programs, GPS 3, the next-generation satellite navigation system slated to start launching in 2015, is targeted for noteworthy reductions in 2013 and in draft spending legislation for 2014. However, even those proposed reductions are modest relative to the size of the proposed program budget for both years. 

On June 10, the Pentagon offered a peek at how it initially plans to deal this year with the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, which took affect in March. According to a spending plan released by Robert Hale, the U.S. Defense Department comptroller, space programs were largely protected. 

Applied evenly, sequestration would shave some 8 percent from all Pentagon spending accounts this year, which in theory would mean a total $300 million to $400 million spending reduction for major military space activities. In reality, Hale’s budget trims about $97 million from major space programs, including about $58 million from GPS 3 and its associated ground system. The budget for the missile warning system known as the Space Based Infrared System was similarly trimmed by about $54 million.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee on June 12 approved its version of the 2014 spending bill for defense, trimming approximately $185 million from the U.S. Air Force’s multibillion-dollar request for major unclassified space programs, according to the report accompanying the legislation.

The lawmakers proposed spending $77 million less next year for the GPS 3 satellite and ground systems, and $50 million less for space situational awareness than the Air Force proposed. The service is seeking nearly $1.1 billion and $400 million for those programs, respectively, for 2014.

In budget documents, committee members said money for advanced procurement of the GPS 3 constellation, specifically the ninth satellite and beyond, was “ahead of need.”  

Currently the Air Force has eight GPS 3 satellites either fully or partially under contract with Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, and has signaled its intent to buy another 12 with improved capabilities. 

But Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has left open the possibility of a new path for the constellation. In an April 25 House hearing, Shelton said the Air Force will study this fall whether to buy another 12 GPS 3 craft or move on to a new generation of satellites. 

With regard to the proposed reduction to space situational awareness spending, the report cited a one-year delay to unspecified contracts. One space situational awareness contract that is long overdue is the next-generation Space Fence, a network of ground based radars that will track objects in Earth orbit more precisely than existing systems.

Like their counterparts on the House Armed Services Committee, which drafted its defense authorization bill earlier in June, the appropriators recommended increased spending on missile defense programs next year, including a third U.S. interceptor site being examined by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). 

The MDA currently has interceptors at two U.S. sites: Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska. The appropriators recommended spending $70 million next year on the third site, which is half of what the House Armed Services Committee recommended.

In a May hearing, the MDA’s director, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, said additional money is not yet needed.

The appropriations bill also includes, albeit within reservations, $107 million to purchase 14 additional interceptors for installation at Fort Greely as part of the Obama administration’s plan to bolster the U.S. territorial shield against the growing North Korean missile threat.

“The test record of the [Ground Based Interceptor] and associated sensors has been mixed,” the committee’s report said. “The Committee supports the strategic hedge these missiles provide, but believes that fielded equipment needs to be effective.”

The committee also added $50 million for enhanced discrimination capability for sensors that help interceptors to determine decoys from live warheads.

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