House Appropriators Slash Satellite Funding

By Jon Harper

The House Appropriations Committee in June slashed money from the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2016 budget request to fund major upgrades to the satellite networks that the national security establishment relies on.

The legislative body cut $191 million from the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency and Space Based Infrared Satellite programs, both of which are part of the service’s space modernization initiative (SMI).

AEHF is a strategic communications system used by the president and top military brass. SBIRS is an intelligence satellite system that uses sensors to detect missile and rocket launches.

Development of a new protected tactical waveform system, which would be used by commanders and troops, would also be affected by the funding cuts.

In its legislation, the House committee wrote that the SMI programs are “limited by lack of direction, are focused on isolated technologies, and are not set up to identify insertion points for a desired future system.”

Brian Weeden, a space technology expert at the Secure World Foundation, said there is a big debate within the space acquisition world about how best to modernize satellite systems.

“I think what Congress is looking for is more clarity from the Pentagon of what their plan is for the future of those capabilities, and why are they not investing that money in that [next-generation technology] rather than investing it in this older technology,” he said.

The Obama administration criticized the cuts, arguing that failure to move forward with the planned upgrades would leave the military with outdated satellite systems.

“Failing to invest in SMI technology maturation now will limit these systems to 1995 sensor technology and the associated obsolescence in our next satellite acquisition,” the White House said in a statement.

Members of industry are also concerned about the cuts. An informal coalition of satellite communications companies led by Hughes Network Systems, sent a joint letter to lawmakers in June calling for the funding to be restored when House and Senate appropriators go into conference to iron out the differences in their respective bills. The Senate Appropriations Committee fully funded the Air Force’s SMI request.

In 2012, Hughes won a $1.8 million contract for the development of management concepts for a new protected tactical waveform communications system, which is being funded through the Air Force’s AEHF program. The company is hoping to expand on that business as the Pentagon develops the system.

“This is strategically important to the U.S. military and then it’s also very strategically important to our business opportunity as we try to grow our defense communications sector,” said John Moberly Sr., senior director for defense and intelligence systems at Hughes. “The one that will lose the most [if funding for SMI is cut] is the war fighter on the battlefield in five years in a scenario where he’s being jammed and he won’t have the ability to communicate over satellite.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Space

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