(Corrects typo in date in first paragraph; earlier, in the 18th
paragraph, the spelling of a general's name was corrected to
* Lockheed, Raytheon bidding to build new radar
* Space programs vulnerable to further budget cuts
* Decisions due in coming years on new approaches
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, April 15 The U.S. Air Force on
Monday said it took steps to fully fund the first increment of a
new ground-based radar to track satellites and other objects in
space in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal, but there was no
funding for a second site for now.
Jamie Morin, acting undersecretary of the Air Force, told
reporters the Space Fence program was a priority given growing
threats in space and the need to monitor activities in space.
"Space Fence is as solid as any program can be in the fiscal
environment we're in right now," Morin, who also serves as the
Air Force's top budget official, told reporters.
The new program will allow the Air Force to sharply increase
its ability to track "space junk" and other smaller objects in
space. Currently the Air Force tracks about 23,000 of an
estimated 500,000 objects in space, but the new program would
allow it to track hundreds of thousands of additional objects.
The Pentagon's unclassified budget proposes spending a total
of $8 billion on space operations in fiscal 2014, about the same
level as in fiscal 2013, including $400.3 million in research
and development funding for Space Fence and a joint program with
Australia to base a C-Band radar in the Southern Hemisphere.
Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Co are
competing for a contract to develop and build the Space Fence
radar. Officials had hoped to fund a second Space Fence site in
Australia, but there was no funding earmarked for that effort at
this point, Morin said.
Last week, the head of Air Force Space Command said a
contract award had been expected in the next month or two, but
the program could be vulnerable to cuts in fiscal 2015, given
competing demands for other Air Force programs.
On Monday, Morin said Space Fence was safe for now, although
he said "everything's vulnerable" in the current budget climate.
He said space programs were showing improvement after years
of cost overruns and schedule delays. Acquisition reforms,
including plans to buy several satellites at a time, had allowed
officials to cut costs on programs as they entered production.
He said the Air Force believed it could cut $1 billion from
projected costs for Lockheed's Advanced Extremely High Frequency
satellite program over the next five years, with another $500
million to be trimmed from Lockheed's missile warning program,
the Space-Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS), in the same period.
But across-the-board budget cuts in fiscal 2013 - and the
threat of additional cuts in coming years - threatened to
undermine the stability the big-ticket programs needed to allow
cost-reduction efforts to continue, Morin said.
He said the Air Force was doing all it could to avoid
breaking multiyear contracts for new missile-warning, secure
communications and other satellites.
But damage to space programs would be "unavoidable" if
Congress fails to avert further across-the-board reductions in
planned Pentagon spending in fiscal 2014 and beyond, Morin said.
"We're not anticipating breaking contracts in 2013, but
we've consumed essentially all the flex within the system," he
said, adding that additional sequestration cuts in fiscal 2014
or later would do "serious damage" to space programs.
Air Force officials said they expected decisions in coming
years about new acquisition approaches for next-generation
weather, secure communications and missile-warning satellites,
including pay-for-service plans, loading sensors onto other
satellites, and buying more smaller, less complex satellites.
U.S. satellite and rocket builders are jockeying to benefit
from shifting Air Force procurement plans.
Morin said the studies on procurement were largely
classified, but in general, they endorsed moving beyond the
purchase of a handful of "extremely expensive assets," and
pursuing "a variety of different additional concepts for getting
at mission areas."
Brigadier General Robert McMurry, director of space programs
for the Air Force, said military officials were also closely
examining their requirements for new satellites.
Richard McKinney, Air Force deputy undersecretary for space,
cautioned that new approaches could in some cases turn out to be
more expensive than the current use of fewer large satellites.
"One does need to have a reasonable level of skepticism
about the new ideas that come in," Morin added, when asked about
a proposed venture to sell weather data as a service from a
dozen commercially launched small satellites.
A new start up, PlanetIQ, backed by Moog Inc, plans
to launch 12 75-kilogram satellites that it says would provide
more accurate real-time weather data than current satellites.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Eric Beech)