Air Force Budget Boosts Space Tech

Space technology is one of the military’s fastest growing sectors, and that is reflected in the Air Force budget request for fiscal year 2018.

The Air Force controls about 90 percent of the military’s space programs. The service is seeking a 20 percent increase for space systems, requesting $7.7 billion in the 2018 federal budget the Trump administration sent to Congress this week. The space request includes $4.3 billion for research and development and $3.4 billion for procurement.

Demands for new and improved space systems — from missile warning, to navigation, weather and communications — are wide ranging and growing by the day, Air Force officials told reporters.

The 2018 budget includes some $2 billion for satellite launch services. This is significant because the Air Force will use the funding to open the market to commercial providers — and help the Pentagon meet a congressional mandate to stop buying Russian-made rocket engines that are used in current military launch vehicles.

Larger budgets for space systems will be needed as the Air Force takes on an expanded portfolio, as well as new responsibilities to ensure systems are protected from enemy attacks, said Maj. Gen. Roger W. Teague, director of space programs at the office of the Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition.

The 2018 budget funds several new programs: The joint space operations center mission system, two programs to provide electro-optical infrared weather surveillance, a new effort to protect tactical satellite communications, a space surveillance telescope, a modernized missile warning constellation, and a upgraded and more secure GPS payload.

This is first year the Air Force has organized its space projects into a “major force program.” This is a term the Pentagon uses to describe the aggregation of programs that support a key war fighting area. Space last year became the Defense Department’s 12th MFP. Teague said the new arrangement helps the Air Force track its space investments more accurately, something that Congress has demanded for years.

Space situational awareness is a priority as the Air Force serves as the nation’s “space traffic controller.” Some $600 million was requested in 2018 for such efforts. The Air Force needs technologies to track an estimated 23,000 objects in space. Of every 400,000 observations a day, about 1,400 of those objects are satellites.

Approximately $453 million is being requested for satellite communications. That is less than half of last year’s budget, and reflects a transition toward greater use of lower-cost commercial systems.

Teague said the Pentagon “is looking very aggressively at the commercial industry” and is trying out different contracting approaches to motivate newcomer suppliers to bid on military contracts. A study is underway to figure out how commercial wideband satcom can be blended into military networks. The Defense Department already leases significant commercial capacity to supplement its own satcom services but the Air Force believes it could be done more economically.

Congress has been pressuring the Air Force to shift to commercial space providers as more companies continue to invest in advanced technology. So-called “cubesats,” for example, can be produced for less than $10,000. They would not replace a military spacecraft but could fulfill some missions, officials said.

Teague said commercial capability could eventually be used for missile warning overhead infrared surveillance

The military is confident that commercial vendors will save the government money and boost innovation, said David A. Hardy, acting deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space.

“An increase in commercial providers is good for national security,” Hardy said. “We want to try to encourage that as much as possible.”

Although security is a major concern driving the Pentagon to build its own satellites and ground stations, increasingly the commercial industry is improving encryption and other technologies to protect systems from jamming and cyber attacks.

The threats to U.S. space systems are daunting, Hardy said. “Based upon our intelligence assessment, it is clear that both Russia and China have aggressive programs to demonstrate capabilities to attack our space assets, kinetically and non-kinetically.”

And the problem is only going to get worse, Hardy said. The tools to make malicious software or jamming devices to disrupt satellite signals are becoming cheaper and more accessible. “Broadly speaking, this is an interesting time for space,” he said. “With all the advanced technology that is out there, the barrier for entry to be a space faring nation continues to go down,” he added. “While we focus on major adversaries, in the future, we realize there will be many other countries that could pose a threat.”

Security in space is not only an issue for the military but for modern society at large. As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein explained it, for the average American who goes to an ATM and pulls money out, the timing signal comes from GPS satellites that are flown and managed by the U.S. Air Force.

“As the service responsible for flying 12 constellations and 90 percent of the space architecture, we take this very seriously,” Golfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

About the Author

Sandra Erwin is a Senior Contributor to Defense Systems

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