House Appropriators Suggest Changes to Major Space Efforts

The Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program, which will eventually replace the missile warning Space-Based Infrared System, is shown here as an artist rendering. Lockheed Martin illustration.

House appropriators want to pull more than $200 million from a key missile warning satellite program in fiscal 2020 and are linking it to the future of the Pentagon’s new Space Development Agency, according to the report accompanying the House Appropriations Committee’s version of the 2020 defense spending bill.

The Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program’s execution raises questions among lawmakers who are concerned about its steep uptick in proposed funding for 2020. The Air Force requested $1.4 billion for OPIR in 2020, three-quarters of a billion dollars above the 2019 spending level. HAC would shrink that to $1.2 billion, in its fiscal 2020 spending bill, which the committee approved with a vote of 30 to 22 on May 21.

Appropriators called out the Air Force’s “strategy of relying on significant reprogramming requests to keep the program on schedule,” according to the report, and questioned whether rapid prototyping is the right approach. OPIR will replace the Space-Based Infrared System.

“The Department of Defense lacks a comprehensive long-term architecture for overhead persistent infrared which integrates the requirements and capabilities across the military user community, to include integration of missile defense and hypersonic defense capabilities,” the report states. “The committee views the current [OPIR] Block 0 program as an important interim step to a currently undefined, but much needed, future comprehensive OPIR architecture.”

This is where the Space Development Agency comes in: the new research group should define that architecture in coordination with the Air Force so that everyone knows their role in prototyping and fielding a unified, integrated missile-warning system, lawmakers said. The bill’s text notes that no more than half of the money appropriated for OPIR can be spent until Congress receives more details about the future of the SDA and how it will interact with existing space-focused groups within DOD.

OPIR is a big-ticket example of lawmakers’ intent to exercise oversight of existing space programs even as the high-profile item—Space Force—remains under debate.

Appropriators took the opportunity to weigh in on the future of national security space launches, urging the Air Force to quickly choose and assign launches to companies and avoid restricting access to space. The service earlier this month released the final request for proposals for Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program, which will select two companies to carry out an estimated 34 launches through 2024, according to Air Force spokesman Maj. Will Russell. Northrop Grumman, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, and SpaceX are expected to bid.

“The committee is concerned with the significant level of technical and programmatic risk this transition [away from the Russian-made RD-180 engine] entails, including risk of a potential gap if any of the new, unproven rockets develop problems or experience setbacks,” the report stated, adding the Air Force should “proceed expeditiously.”

Lawmakers later floated the idea that the Air Force should oversee narrowband satellite communications instead of the Navy, since the air service already manages wideband and strategic SATCOM. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directed the three service Secretaries to come up with a plan to pursue an integrated SATCOM architecture spanning narrowband and wideband comms, one that will likely piggyback on the commercial sector.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in April partnerships with the commercial SATCOM industry pose an important opportunity, and argued all services need to drive toward low-cost, multiband SATCOM terminals for their equipment.

The bill also notes the National Space Defense Center’s struggle to pull together space situational awareness satellite data and form a common operating picture shared by the defense and intelligence communities. Lawmakers want USAF to take an extra $5 million and look to the private sector.

“There are commercial solutions available that could potentially provide a capability to meet some of these requirements in the near term,” the report said.

A revived US Space Command is fully funded in the bill. Space Force watchers will have to wait for the House Armed Services Committee’s policy bill for a better sense of where the proposed service could be headed. HAC members aren’t persuaded that the legislative plan the Pentagon sent to Capitol Hill earlier this year justifies additional costs and the upheaval it would cause within DOD. Still, they created a new appropriations line to offer DOD $15 million to refine its plan.

“While the committee appreciates the intent of the proposal, the plan leaves many unanswered questions and lacks important details and supporting analysis to justify the proposed size, scope, cost, roles, and authorities for the new military service,” the report said.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is looking on the bright side: by blocking any intelligence organizations from moving into the Space Force, HAC implies there may be a Space Force, he said on Twitter.

“It does not authorize a Space Force, but this is an appropriations bill, not an authorization bill,” Harrison said. “It’s not supposed to authorize it. That’s the job of the NDAA.”