WASHINGTON — When U.S. Space Force leaders proposed a new missile warning and tracking architecture last year in the service’s budget request, they called it a bridging strategy — a way to maintain existing capabilities until new ones are fielded.

“We don’t have the luxury of going out to the world and saying we’re going to turn off all of these capabilities and we’ll come back in a few years with a bunch of new capabilities,” former Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond told reporters in April. “You have to have a bridging strategy,”

The Fiscal 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law Dec. 29, appears to agree with the Space Force on the need for a low-risk transition from old to new capabilities. Lawmakers added about $450 million to the service’s $4.7 billion request, which funds satellites in high and low orbits that can track ballistic and hypersonic missiles and their associated ground systems.

But some experts say Congress’ decision to fund the effort may not amount to a full endorsement.

A ‘bridging’ strategy

The Space Force’s proposal was shaped by a 2021 review led by the Space Warfighting Analysis Center. The study brought together Space Systems Command, the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency to hash out a future architecture as China and Russia tout their progress developing hypersonic weapons, which are harder to track than traditional ballistic missiles.

The SWAC review recommended an expanded architecture that reaches beyond the large, expensive satellites based in geosynchronous and polar orbits — like the legacy Space Based Infrared System and the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program, which is in development and slated for its first launch in 2025. The service fears those satellites, located on geosynchronous and polar orbits more than 22,000 miles above the Earth, could be easy targets for adversaries looking to disable critical U.S. space assets.

Instead, the study found, the Space Force should draw on smaller space vehicles with advanced sensors operating across a more diverse range of orbits. The Space Development Agency is leading an effort to build a constellation of missile tracking satellites in low Earth orbit, less than 1,200 miles above Earth, and expects to have a constellation providing global missile tracking capabilities by fiscal 2026.

Space Systems Command is managing a separate program to develop a medium Earth orbit constellation, between LEO and GEO. The service expects to launch the first satellite by 2026 and have four satellites on orbit by 2028.

Until the new capabilities are in place and have proven they can provide global coverage, the service wants to continue to fund both the high-orbit and lower-orbit programs. Its fiscal 2023 request, which was $1.6 billion higher than what Congress appropriated in FY22, included $3.2 billion to continue development of Next-Gen OPIR. It also proposed $1.5 billion to fund the MEO and LEO programs, pulling them under a new funding line called Resilient Missile Warning and Tracking.

Middle ground

Sam Wilson, a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation — a space-focused federally funded research and development center — told C4ISRNET that while the additional money from Congress gives the Space Force flexibility to make progress on its missile warning and tracking plans, the details of the legislation reflect some shifts away from the administration’s proposed approach.

“There are different opinions on what this transition should look like, what this bridging strategy means,” Wilson said in an interview.

In the omnibus, that difference in approach is reflected in the way Congress distributed funding across each program. The spending legislation moves to accelerate the LEO and MEO segments, adding about $533 million across both efforts. It keeps Next-Gen OPIR intact for the most part, cutting $100 million it said was “excess to need.”

Wilson noted earlier versions of the legislation reflected different approaches from the House and Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee proposed a sharper transition to the new architecture, calling for a $612 million cut to Next-Gen OPIR’s polar segment and a $912 million addition to the LEO and MEO segments. House appropriators, however, didn’t propose a funding increase, and instead recommended modest cuts to the MEO and Next-Gen OPIR programs.

In a policy paper published earlier this year, Wilson said the differences “speak to questions about whether and how quickly DoD should transition from GEO and polar-orbiting systems to a LEO and MEO architecture.” The final omnibus, he told C4ISRNET, fell somewhere between the budget request and the Senate’s earlier proposal.

“It was a middle course that maintained flexibility,” Wilson said. “It could still go in different directions, but right now it’s keeping Next-Gen OPIR funded but also increasing funding for the LEO and MEO space segment.”

Wes Rumbaugh, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while maintaining assets in higher and lower orbits carries a steeper price tag, it also provides resiliency — a top priority for the Space Force and for Congress.

“The guiding logic behind having assets at all different types of orbits — whether it be GEO, MEO or LEO — is being able to build in a defense against counterspace assets through resiliency and through some amount of redundancy,” Rumbaugh told C4ISRNET in an interview. “It does not surprise me that they would keep all their balls in the air, so to speak, to have some flexibility.”

But Rumbaugh pointed out the flexibility Congress has afforded the Space Force also comes with a call for accountability. Lawmakers in recent years have pushed for more insight into Next-Gen OPIR cost and schedule targets and this year’s omnibus continues on that path.

In a report accompanying the fiscal 2023 omnibus, lawmakers say they “strongly” support a pivot to a new architecture, but want more details on that architecture’s cost over time. The legislation requires the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office to deliver to Congress by June a life-cycle cost estimate for the Resilient Missile Warning and Tracking program.

It also directs Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman to share a report by late February comparing the cost, schedule, capability and risk of each element of the Space Force’s missile warning and tracking architecture. Lawmakers also require quarterly briefings on each program’s status.

Wilson said the language, which originated in the House’s draft appropriations bill, indicates that even though Congress agrees the mission is critical, they still have cost and transparency concerns.

Rumbaugh and Wilson hesitated to speculate on what the outcome of fiscal 2023 deliberations could mean for the Space Force’s fiscal 2024 budget request, but Wilson said he’ll be watching whether the service changes its approach.

“What happened in the omnibus was clearly a compromise between the Senate and the House bills,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how much of that gets reflected and what’s in the [president’s budget] next year.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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