Curtain up on Space Modernization

Dec. 1, 2005

When they talk about USAF’s space capabilities, Air Force officials often emphasize how important these systems are to the US military as a whole. It now seems that space modernization budgets may come close to matching that rhetoric.

According to a new Congressional Budget Office report, Pentagon space programs will have to receive major budget increases over a long period. The Air Force—DOD’s executive agent for space—is responsible for the development and procurement of most of the truly significant military space systems.

The 2005 budget for space systems development and procurement totaled $4.9 billion. (All numbers refer to “white”—or openly acknowledged—programs. Not included are figures pertaining to “black”—or classified—programs.) To finance the plans laid out in the current budget, says CBO, that figure next year will increase by 40 percent, reaching $6.9 billion.

After that, planned spending will continue to rise year by year, though not as sharply. It tops out in 2010 at almost $10 billion, according to the CBO’s analysis of Future Years Defense Program figures. Thus, space spending would double in just five years. CBO projects that space investment will then slowly drift downward until 2020, when it begins to rise again.

Like all budget projections, these figures are estimates that could be pushed one way or another by annual program decisions. They could also change dramatically—either up or down—as a result of the Pentagon’s 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, which is nearing its end.

Cost growth, changes in development timelines, and satellites that last longer than expected might also make the estimates off base.

Historical Patterns

The budget office points out that, historically, space system research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) costs have grown by an average of 69 percent from original estimates. Space procurement costs have risen by an average of 19 percent, compared to first estimates. Further complicating projections, many current systems outlive their design lifetimes, meaning that some projected costs are avoided because spacecraft and satellites just keep going.

The CBO report says costs could go even higher than currently projected. If future costs grow at the historical rate, it says, “investment needs would peak at $14.4 billion—rather than $10 billion—in 2010.”

Of the assorted modernization programs, the Pentagon considers two to be “transformational,” leading to great leaps forward in capability. They are:

Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT), needed to provide high-capacity, global connectivity for military users.

Space Radar, a nine-satellite constellation able to detect and track moving terrestrial objects in all weather conditions.

Other big-ticket items include the Space Based Infrared System in high Earth orbit (SBIRS High), an early warning system to replace current Defense Support Program satellites, and the next generation of Global Positioning System navigation and timing satellites.

Space Radar

Space-based intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) programs are significant. Among the most critical is the Space Radar program, whose satellites are to be launched beginning in 2015. CBO projects a $19 billion price tag for the space segment of the program (once known as Space-Based Radar).

That projection is based on a rough cost for Space Radar satellites of $500 million apiece. Total life cycle costs for the project, including ground-based segments and 12 years of operation, might run $34 billion, according to a Department of Defense estimate cited by CBO.


Military satellite communication is the largest category in the space budget. DOD’s rapidly growing requirement for bandwidth is a major reason. Another is the need to replace today’s aging constellations. Current MILSATCOM is creaky, so much so—reports CBO—that military communications bandwidth will shrink after 2020 even if TSAT comes along as planned.

“If existing constellations do not last as long as envisioned or new constellations experience delays in deployment, the decline in the availability of bandwidth may begin sooner,” warns the study.

Planned investment through 2024 totals about $32 billion, according to CBO estimates. Of this, $27 billion goes to the Air Force for wideband and protected systems.

Among the Air Force projects is the Wideband Gap-filler System (WGS), which will replace Defense Satellite Communications System and Global Broadcast System payloads. Plans call for the first launch in 2006, with the full five-bird constellation operating beyond 2017.

Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite Communications System (AEHF) satellites will begin replacing Milstar in 2008. Because AEHF will provide coverage of the globe only up to 65 degrees latitude, it is to be augmented with satellites covering the northern polar region. Plans call for two Interim Polar payloads to be operating by end of 2006. They will be replaced by Enhanced Polar System payloads around 2013.

Then there is TSAT, a five-satellite constellation using laser cross-links offering wideband and protected services. The first TSAT launch is planned for 2013.

Missile Warning

Missile warning capabilities are currently provided by the Defense Support Program. The newest DSP satellite was put up in 2004; the last is scheduled to be launched in 2006. SBIRS High is the DSP successor. Current plans call for five satellites in geostationary orbit, plus two sensor payloads on other satellites in elliptical orbit. First launch is in 2008.

Total spending on the two missile warning systems is predicted to be $11 billion through 2024, according to CBO.


Navigation is another large category of planned space investment. The Air Force GPS is the main factor. The 24-sat GPS constellation has been steadily improved over the years.

Right now, the Air Force is launching Block IIR-M satellites that will have two new military position, velocity, time, and navigation signals, as well as a second civilian signal.

Plans call for the Air Force in 2007 to begin putting up Block IIF satellites, which will add a third civilian signal.

Improved GPS Block III models— including such features as additional antijam capability­­—could launch in 2013.

Given the current launch schedule, the average age of GPS satellites should stabilize at six years around 2014, according to CBO calculations.

The need to modernize the GPS system has been eased quite a bit by the unexpected longevity of the satellites. CBO confirms that many remain serviceable long after the end of their estimated service-life limits.

Total projected GPS investment through 2024 is $12.5 billion.

Weather Monitoring

DOD environmental monitoring activities are handled by five satellites—three from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), two from the US Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite program. Four DMSP satellites have yet to be placed in orbit, according to CBO. Final launch is in 2012 or later.

The existing weather monitoring architecture will be replaced, beginning around 2015, by the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and a single European Meteorological Operational Satellite.

A joint venture of the Air Force, Department of Commerce, and NASA, NPOESS is scheduled to begin launching in 2010.

CBO estimates that spending on environmental monitoring programs will total $3.4 billion by 2024.

Space Launch

Lifting all these planned satellites into space remains yet another large category of space spending, according to the CBO calculations.

Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) are the systems of choice for launching most military satellites. The EELV program has two types of rockets, the Boeing Delta IV and Lockheed Martin Atlas V. Both variants can lift medium-size payloads of 11 to 17 tons, but only the Delta IV family includes a model that can muscle larger payloads of up to 28 tons into low Earth orbit.

In addition, space launch includes the new Operationally Responsive Spacelift program, intended to develop launchers capable of rapid placement of smaller payloads.

Launch needs dictate the US will likely require six to seven EELV launches a year through 2024, according to CBO. Total funding for this effort would be roughly $28 billion.

New Ventures

Other unclassified space efforts include space control missions.

The Spacetrack program is developing radar and optical sensors to monitor space. The Rapid Attack Identification, Detection, and Reporting System and the Counter Communications System will provide capability to disrupt enemy space assets. Annual funding for space control should increase from $195 million in 2006 to $768 million in 2011, says CBO.

Force-application programs include the Common Aero Vehicle initiative, which will help develop a conventional warhead that could be launched from an ICBM or perhaps an orbiting platform. CBO assumes a deployment of 40 ICBMs with CAV warheads beginning in 2015. At that point, investment in space-based force application might reach $600 million.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Air Force Sharpens Its Edge,” with Adam J. Hebert, appeared in the November issue.