Hungry for details?

Six questions the President’s Budget could answer

For anyone famished for insight into the tight-lipped world of national security space, every new crumb of information, no matter how small, is to be savored. Every February, assuming the White House budget groundhog sees its shadow, is feast time as the Pentagon rolls out a smörgåsbord of milspace sustenance in the form of its annual budget request to Congress.

The fiscal 2017 budget, which President Obama is slated to send to Capitol Hill Feb. 9, provides the clearest direction of where the Defense Department is heading with its national security space programs.

To whet your appetite, here are three big questions and three smaller questions the new budget request could answer:

What’s the Air Force long-term strategy for weather satellites?

Congress is unhappy about the Air Force’s weather program, a point they made clear last year in authorization in spending bills. How unhappy? Rather than allow the last satellite in the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program to launch, they terminated the program. The Air Force is planning a weather gapfiller satellite and a new weather satellite known as the Weather System Follow-on, but when they would launch is far from clear. The president’s budget request could provide answers and show whether the Air Force is resigned to turn DMSP-20 into razor blades.

How will the Air Force build on the space protection initiative it started in its FY-16 budget?

DoD leaders were quick to point out they shifted $5.5 billion for space protection efforts for the five-year budget outlook in fiscal year 2016. While officials have said that money will go toward several space situational awareness efforts and classified programs, it’s also thought the money will be used to pay for a new joint space operations center serving the military and the intelligence community. Known as the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, the JICSpOC is running experiments probing how the Defense Department would respond to a battle in space. The 2017 budget request could provide more clarity on the program, including how much the government would spend on the site to get it operational. Industry officials expect $100 million.

What’s the Air Force’s schedule for competitive launch contracts?

The Air Force is expected to award its first competitive launch contract in more than a decade as soon as next month (The award, the first of nine to be awarded this year and next, likely will go to SpaceX after United Launch Alliance declined to bid). But the details of how the Air Force will award a significantly larger batch of contracts starting in 2018 have yet to be released. Will the Air Force continue to order one launch at time, or revert to buying in bulk?

Other areas to watch:

Will the budget contain clues about the next-generation of missile warning or highly protected communication satellites?

Will the Air Force request the $100 million the satellite industry would like to see for Pathfinder 3, a pilot program to change how the Pentagon buys bandwidth?

After several years of minimal budgets, how much funding will the service set aside for its Operationally Responsive Space office?