U.S. Air Force Seeks $1.3 Billion Increase for Space Programs

Artist's Illustration of the Space Fence
The Space Fence is said to be capable of tracking about 200,000 objects and make 1.5 million observations per day, about 10 times the number made by previous radars such as the AFSSS. Air Force leaders have estimated that the actual number of objects orbiting Earth is closer to 500,000. (Image credit: Lockheed Martin)

WASHINGTON – The White House is asking Congress to provide $7.75 billion for military space systems in 2018, a $1.3 billion increase over what the Pentagon sought for 2017.

The space portion of the Defense Department's 2018 budget request includes $4.33 billion for research, development, testing, and evaluation, and $3.42 billion for procurement, according to Air Force officials. The numbers reflect the scope of defense space operations, with most programs under the purview of the Air Force, but includes outlays for other national security agencies including the National Reconnaissance Office.

"We've got to be able to find that sweet spot between capability, affordability, and resiliency," said Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, the director of space programs in the office of the U.S. Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon May 24. "Budgets are tight and we can't just continue to spend. We've got to be able to invest prudently, and focus our investments on the right kinds of capabilities to ensure we have the appropriate level of protection as well as capabilities in the future." [The Most Destructive Space Weapons Concepts]

With both Republican and Democratic lawmakers already declaring President Donald Trump's broader budget request "dead on arrival," the DoD portions of the annual spending request are likely to provide only rough guidelines for the spending bills House and Senate appropriators will be drafting in the weeks ahead.

Overall, Trump is seeking $574.5 billion for the Defense Department, a $52 billion increase over the 2017 budget. Trump is also seeking $64.6 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding, a separate and often classified budget account that goes towards warfighting efforts including ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen.

Military space only gets a passing mention in the introductory pages of the budget document, where Trump says his plan "recognizes the need for American superiority not only on land, at sea, in the air, and in space, but also in cyberspace."

Here's how some of the major Air Force space programs fared in the budget request:

SSA and Space Fence

With construction nearly complete on the Air Force's ground-based radar station at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the service only requested $36 million in 2018 to start getting testing up and running before the station reaches its initial operating capability in 2019. That's a big drop from the $168 million requested in 2017 to finish building the space situational awareness (SSA) facility.

A recent Government Accountability Office report recommended that the Air Force study setting up a second radar facility to aid with SSA, but Teague told reporters the service wants to get the first location up and running before it thinks about expanding the capability.


The Air Force is continuing its analysis of alternatives for what should follow the Wideband Global Satcom satellites the service began deploying a decade ago to replace the Defense Satellite Communications System and Global Broadcast Service satellites. The Air Force is requesting $95 million to fund the wideband AoA and final assembly and testing of WGS-10, right now the last planned satellite in the constellation.

The Air Force is also hoping the funding will lead to movement on the Pathfinder series of contract experiments meant to improve the way DoD buys commercial satellite services. The first Pathfinder contract was awarded in 2014 to SES. The Air Force leased Ku-band capacity from one of the company's satellites over Africa.

Pathfinder Two was expected to be awarded in 2016, with the Air Force purchasing a transponder on a commercial communications satellite and then leveraging that investment for access to the rest of the fleet operator's constellation. However, the program stalled over questions about whether government funding regulations permit this sort of barter arrangement.

The Air Force proposes to use a funding boost to get Pathfinder Two moving again and initiate three additional pilot projects.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is also looking to install new communications terminals designed to maintain contact in the event of nuclear disaster or similarly disruptive event. Known as the Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminals, or FAB-T, the $172 million funding request would install the terminals on nuclear-equipped bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress, reconnaissance aircraft like the RC-135 Rivet Joint, and tanker aircraft used for in-flight refueling.


The Air Force's next-generation global positioning system constellation — GPS 3 — is seeking a big boost, with the Air Force requesting $329 million, a $116 increase over what was requested for 2017. Lockheed Martin is currently building the first 10 GPS 3 satellites, but long delays have led Air Force leaders to move toward reopening competition for the next 22 satellites in the constellation. Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are all vying for the job under production readiness contracts the Air Force awarded a year ago.

Regardless of which company winds up building the satellites, the extra funding will help ramp up full production of the satellites, planned to start in 2019, the Air Force said.

Meanwhile, GPS 3's troubled ground-control segment, known as OCX, is getting a $119 million boost, bringing the funding up to a requested $511 million for 2018. Congress, however, could potentially give the service a lot less than it asked for, as many lawmakers have openly discussed withholding funding for the program until long-standing issues are fixed.

The program is "not out of the woods yet," Teague said, but noted that quarterly reviews are showing progress following OCX's 2016 Nunn-McCurdy breach – a formal declaration that indicates costs have grown more than 25 percent over initial projections and exposes the contract to potential cancellation.

The Air Force is expected to complete a full program review of OCX in June, which will inform decisions about when the ground system will be ready — or if the contract should be rebid.


With increasing concern about missile threats from North Korea and Russia, missile warning and detection is getting one of the largest chunks of the space budget. The Air Force's Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation could see $1.3 billion in funding if Congress goes along, an increase of $862 million over what was requested last year.

The money provides support for the launch and operation of SBIRS GEO 4 — scheduled to lift off in November — and funds Lockheed Martin's completion of SBIRS GEO 5 and 6. The money will also lay the groundwork for a potential SBIRS 7 and 8, though there is not an acquisition plan yet for those satellites.

Some of the money is also being earmarked for SBIRS software updates and cybersecurity improvements.


Looming gaps in Air Force weather-monitoring capabilities have lead DoD to request an increase of $22 million in 2018, bringing the requested total to $142 million. In 2015, Congress barred the Air Force from launching a surplus Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite that spent years in storage, leaving the Air Force to focus on gap fillers while working on a next-generation Weather Satellite Follow-on.

The Air Force is looking to the budget to fund awards for a microwave-equipped satellite to monitor ocean surface vector winds and tropical cyclone intensity, as well as funding the launch of the ORS-6 Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer satellite in partnership with the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space Office.

The service is also hoping to fund a future similar satellite, ORS-8, which would focus on cloud characterization.

SpaceNews will update this story as more information becomes available.

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Phillip Swarts
Contributing Writer

Phillip Swarts covered the military, national security and government contracting in space for Space News from 2016 to 2017. A master's graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Swarts's work can also be found at The Washington Times and Air Force Times. More recently, he has worked as a teacher for the Arlington Public School District.