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Space Development Agency gets 2 more launches in House defense markup

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in April carried a NRO mission (NROL-85) from Vandenberg SFB, procured through the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.

WASHINGTON: The draft House defense spending bill for fiscal 2023, released today, would fill the Space Force’s request in its unfunded priorities list for two additional launches for the Space Development Agency, bringing the total number of launches funded under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program to eight.

All told, the space service doesn’t fare too badly under the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee’s draft — getting a slight bump up from its nearly $3.63 billion procurement request of about $100 million to $3.72 billion, but taking an approximate $300 million cut in its almost $15.8 billion research and development request to $15.5 billion.

According to the HAC-D press release detailing major spending elements, the add to NSSL —  bringing the total funding up to $1.54 billion from the service’s request for $1.24 billion — represents the biggest procurement program change. SDA will be subsumed by the Space Force in October, and the service requested only three launches for its planned National Defense Space Architecture of multiple constellations in Low Earth Orbit. The Space Force did, however, ask for two extra SDA launches, and $200 million, in its annual unfunded priorities list.

In the research, development, test and evaluation (RTD&E) pot, the most interesting change was to plump the Space Force’s request from a total request of about $639 million to $788 million for what the service now calls Resilient Missile Warning-Missile Tracking. That effort lumps together two separate programs: SDA’s planned Tracking Layer satellites in Low Earth Orbit being optimized to track hypersonic missiles, for which the service requested $499.8 million, and the Space Systems Command new initiative to develop missile warning/tracking birds in Medium Earth Orbit to do the same, with a request of $139.1 million.

Meanwhile, the HAC-D draft fully funds the service’s RTD&E request for the flagship Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Overhead (Next-Gen OPIR) missile warning constellation in Geosynchronous and polar orbits at $3.45 billion.

And major elements of the Space Force’s efforts to upgrade the Global Position System (GPS) satellites that provide positioning, timing and navigation for troops and weapon systems also remain close to fully funded in the draft — with the RTD&E request for the GPS III Follow On effort taking a wee cut from $325.9 million to $318 million.

The HAC-D draft also includes some legislative language constraining how some of the space-related money is spent, or in some cases not spent.

The appropriators stipulate that no funds can be used to change how National Intelligence Programs are budgeted, unless and until the Secretary of Defense can provide a report outlining options and including certification from all affected agencies that this will not create a counterintelligence threat.

This issue is most pertinent to the Department of the Air Force, which currently carries the budget for the Intelligence Community’s classified space programs, including National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellites, as a “pass through” in its top line. Advocates for the department have argued this mechanism is detrimental because it creates a false narrative about cross-service budget parity. In the Pentagon’s 2023 request, the secret space pass through totaled some $40 billion.

In the same vein, the HAC-D draft prohibits the use of any funds to move the NRO into the Space Force — somewhat of a pre-emptive strike against any possible leanings in that direction from within the Defense Department.

In addition, the House appropriators prohibit funds being used to transfer any Army, Navy or other DoD agency to the Space Force unless and until SecDef reports that the plans will “not have an adverse impact” on those services, and provides the involved budget plans for the fiscal 2024 future budget cycle.

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