Senate appropriators have a message for the Air Force: Make early warning missile satellites a priority.

The Senate Appropriations Committee expressed concern over the Air Force’s plan for funding the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system in a report on their annual defense spending bill. While the Pentagon requested $1.4 billion for the program in fiscal year 2020, the Senate spending committee noted that the request was $630 million short of what the program needs. With such a gap, senators questioned whether OPIR was a priority for the Air Force.

OPIR is the next-generation early warning missile defense satellite system that will ultimately replace the Space Based Infrared System. The Pentagon has contracts with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to build three satellites in geosynchronous orbit and two covering the polar regions, respectively.

In order to close the funding gap, the Air Force has made a number of reprogramming requests. But according to Senate appropriators, that’s not a responsible path forward.

“If the program is to have any chance of success, the department cannot continue to rely on reprogramming requests for its funding,” the committee’s report read.

Instead, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a far larger budget of $1.9 billion for OPIR. While that is still less than the program need, it represents an increase of $535.5 million. Those funds are in addition to reprogramming requests that could meet the more than $2 billion program need.

Lockheed Martin representatives told reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference Sept. 17 that the requested increase in fiscal year 2020 funding doesn’t represent a growth in costs for the program, but is the result of the rapid acquisition approach to the OPIR program.

“This shouldn’t be perceived as cost growth,”said Kay Sears, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager for military space. “But it is an accelerated schedule, so it comes with an accelerated budget.”

“Next Gen is an absolutely critical capability. We’ve been asked to deliver that capability in a ‘go fast’ environment by 2025 and we are planning to do that. That comes with a funding profile that is a little bit different than a traditional defense program,” she added.

Part of that go fast approach, which Sears says results in higher up front costs, includes a payload competition between a Northrop Grumman/Ball team and a Raytheon team.

“There’s a lot of spending that can happen at all of those companies at the same time,” explained Sears. “That is what is driving the funding profile ― it’s the payload development and the fact that (...) we have two payload developers and two capabilities that we’re going to have to choose from in that critical mission area.”

Senate appropriators noted in their report that OPIR is breaking ground for how to provide rapid prototypes for programs in the future and needs to be fully funded as an example.

“The Committee believes the program will be an exemplar for rapid acquisition of space programs, whether the program succeeds or fails,” read the report. “Failure will have implications for Congress’s willingness to fund future programs using the National Defense Authorization Act section 804 rapid prototyping and fielding authorities for similarly large, or even middle tier programs, for years to come.”

OPIR has been a point of contention between the House and Senate as they work through the two annual defense bills. Earlier in the summer the House balked at the massive increase in what the Pentagon wanted for OPIR in fiscal year 2020. While the $1.4 billion Pentagon request is $630 million below what the program needs, it’s $459 million above what the Pentagon projected it would need for the program in fiscal year 2020 in the previous years’ budget.

The House Armed Services Committee ultimately authorized just $1 billion for the program in their National Defense Authorization Act citing unexplained growth, prompting a letter from the White House arguing that a failure to fund the Pentagon’s full budget request now would lead to delays and higher costs over time.