A planned follow-on to U.S. Air Force Space Command’s Space Fence surveillance network may fall victim to the Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, the command’s top general said July 16.

The comments amount to some of the first confirmed program sacrifices emerging from the long-term effects of the 2011 Budget Control Act and its automatic sequestration cuts. But they also stem from the fact that the Defense Department and Air Force are dramatically re-evaluating designs for space systems that will provide critical space capabilities starting in the late 2020s, when other nations and threats will be more prevalent in outer space.

Space designs are essentially locked in for providing capabilities until the middle of next decade, U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton told a Capitol Hill breakfast audience July 16. But with space programs taking seven to 12 years to design, certify and fly, officials must begin planning now for beyond then. For the Space Fence, Space Command is awaiting approval from among the Defense Department’s highest levels, i.e., the deputy defense secretary or acquisition czar, to continue planning further upgrades to the program in the fiscal 2015 budget cycle.

Space Fence is a system of large, ground-based radars for surveiling objects in orbit. Officials had planned to award a single system development and production contract for a follow-on system this year, according to an April report from the Government Accountability Office. They also planned to provide an initial operational capability by 2017 with one of two new planned radar sites — on the Kwajalein Atoll — nearly completed.

But, “that award is being held up while we’re determining whether or not this is a priority for the department,” Shelton said. “I’ll tell you from a personal perspective it’s a high priority for Air Force Space Command and, I think, for the nation in terms of space situational awareness,” he added.

To be sure, Space Fence was being eyed as a bill-payer even as the internal Pentagon review was just being started. At the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., in early April, Shelton said the armed service was once again forgoing plans to begin developing a replacement for the Boeing/Ball Aerospace Space-Based Space Surveillance System, the orbital system that complements the ground-based Space Fence (Aerospace DAILY, April 16).

Space Fence follow-ons had been “deferred” beyond fiscal 2018, according to Jamie Morin, acting Air Force undersecretary, as the mission duration of the SBSS satellite was “revised upward.”

But with hopes of Congress undoing the budget law and its sequestration cuts rapidly fading this year, the internal Pentagon strategic review increasingly became important for guiding additional spending cuts needed in 2014 and beyond to live with the 2011 law’s 10-year time frame. Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who led the review, has told reporters that he has had to press uniformed planners to make hard choices to meet the law’s full effects.

“It’s just a smart management decision,” Shelton acknowledged about the department-wide review, “but we need to get moving on the space” programs.

If the Space Fence follow-on is not allowed to move forward, officials are looking at improving space surveillance sensors already at Eglin AFB, Fla., for instance. But Shelton said those service-life extensions would still fall short of the low-and-high-inclination orbit coverage that would be provided by Kwajalein.

Nevertheless, Carter noted earlier this year that outer space is a core domain that the military will focus even harder on, despite and because of the budget law (Aerospace DAILY, May 20).

In describing the internal review in May, he said the Pentagon has started a first-ever teaming effort to bring its constellation program staff together with anti-satellite and post-space planners. They are looking at all space issues, apparently, including counter-space and “operating through” — or continuing warfighting — if space capabilities are lost.

According to Shelton, his command has access to a space modernization initiative fund to explore new architectures to address both budget restrictions and emerging threats. “Nobody is relieving us of the requirements — if anything, the requirements for space capabilities are going up.”