U.S. congressional defense panels push (and pull) on military space funding

The four congressional committees responsible for setting U.S. defense spending for 2017 have finished drafting their competing bills, laying the ground for a legislative tug-of-war over funding levels and policy direction for the Defense Department’s portfolio of national security space programs. Some of the big differences between the two sets of defense authorization and apppropriations bills now before Congress concern launch and the Air Force’s management of its next generation of space systems.

Launch: This is a big issue, not just in the space community, but in all of defense. All four committees agreed the Air Force needs to develop a new rocket engine to replace the RD-180, providing at least $296 million for the effort. HASC suggested $320 million for the program next year. At the same time, House and Senate appropriators, frustrated in part by delays on a new ground control system for GPS, agree that the Air Force should contract for three launches next year, not the five the White House requested. That move could save some $400 million. Finally, the issue of how many Russian engines the Air Force can use remains undecided. HASC said 18, SASC said nine and Senate appropriators would allow the engines for any competition.

Operational Control Segment: Lawmakers are worried about the development of the ground control system for GPS 3 satellites. Senate appropriator cut $229 million from OCX and directed the Air Force to descope the program. Senate authorizers fenced off OCX’s entire budget until DoD makes the case for continuing the program.

Operationally Responsive Space: The ORS Office, which works on rapid response military space capabilities, has found consistent allies in Congress in recent years, resulting in modest boosts in funding. Lawmakers from three defense committees suggested adding $10 million to $20 million to the White House’s request.

Weather Satellite Follow-on: Lawmakers remain unhappy with the AIr Force’s slow progress on replacing its aging weather satellites. The question that remains is how Congress wants the Defense Department to remedy the situation. HASC wants to move part of DoD’s weather portfolio to the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates spy satellites. House appropriators say the Air Force doesn’t have a solid plan for avoiding a gap in critical weather capabilities.