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 request

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.

The Air Force re-examined the requirements for the JMS and assumed the role as integrator, avoiding roughly $500 million in costs originally set aside for the program. Now, the Air Force is planning to use commercially procured software and hardware and use some practices for managing the project that were spearheaded by the Navy’s Spawar command. Initial operational capability has been moved up three years to fiscal 2016, Morin says.

Morin boasts $1 billion in cost avoidance by purchasing two Lockheed Martin Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites in one “bulk” buy. The Air Force and Lockheed Martin are negotiating a definitized price for the purchase of AEHFs 5 and 6, but a letter contract issued in December is not to exceed $2.42 billion. AEHF is the first program applied to the efficient space procurement (ESP) program, which calls for contracting for multiple satellites in one deal to take advantage of economic order quantities and stability in the industry. The Air Force is requesting $652.5 million in fiscal 2014 for AEHF, including $272.9 million in development costs. This covers a portion of the two-satellite buy over the course of several years.

Contract negotiations

Next up for contract negotiations is Lockheed Martin’s Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs). Both Sbirs and AEHF were troubled development programs that cost billions more dollars than planned and delivered years late. By applying ESP practices to Sbirs and planning for a bulk buy of space vehicles 5 and 6 together, Morin said he hopes to save $500 million compared to buying the missile warning spacecraft singly. “There is a potential for significantly more than that” in the future for Sbirs, Morin says.

The service is asking for $964 million for Sbirs in fiscal 2014, including $352.5 million in development funding.

The Air Force’s $698.9 million request for Lockheed Martin’s GPS III program covers the buy of space vehicles 7 and 8 as well as long-lead parts for satellites 9 and 10. The Air Force is devising a procurement strategy for GPS III vehicles 9 and beyond; they are slated to include an improvement to the search-and-rescue payload as well as the ability to “dual-launch” two GPS IIIs on a single Atlas V booster.

Negotiations between the Air Force and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are ongoing for the next buy of 36-50 Atlas V and Delta IV rocket cores. The Air Force is requesting $1.881 billion in fiscal 2014, including funding for the first five cores of this multi-rocket buy. This account also includes a conversion to the RL10C universal upper stage for the Atlas V and Delta IV as well as activities to support requests to certify competitors to ULA, including Space Explorations Technologies and Orbital Sciences.

Though Air Force officials are conducting preliminary studies to craft a next-generation weather satellite constellation, no funds are in the fiscal 2014 budget to begin work on it soon. Air Force Space Command chief Gen. William Shelton is pushing for an improved Space Fence and Jspoc first.