Congress is worried about a proposed massive budget increase to the Air Force’s next generation missile warning satellite system.
In a report released May 20, the House Appropriations Committee expressed concern over the Air Force’s $1.4 billion budget request for its Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) Program for fiscal year 2020. That amount is more than double what Congress approved for fiscal 2019 and $459 million more than Air Force leaders expected to spend on the program a year ago. In response, the House Appropriations Committee recommended funding $1.2 billion for the program, about $202 million less than the Pentagon had asked for.
The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program will consist of five satellites and is expected to replace the Air Force’s current early warning missile system, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). Those satellites provide early warnings of ballistic missile attacks on the United States, its deployed forces, or its allies, though the Air Force notes that the OPIR will have improved “missile warning capabilities that are more survivable against emerging threats.”
The first OPIR satellite is expected in orbit by fiscal year 2025.
The Department of Defense requested $1.4 billion for the program for fiscal year 2020, an increase of $752 million over what Congress approved last year and $459 million more than what the Air Force anticipated for fiscal year 2020 request in its fiscal 2019 request.
In the report, members of the House Appropriations Committee expressed concern with the increase, as well as the Air Force’s reliance on reprogramming requests to fund the program.
“The Committee appreciates the importance of the OPIR mission to national security, and the urgent need to field a more resilient capability against growing space threats,” the report read. “However, the Committee is concerned with the rapid budget growth and the Air Force strategy of relying on significant reprogramming requests to keep the program on schedule.”
The committee also noted that the Department of Defense did not have a comprehensive long-term plan for overhead persistent infrared satellite capabilities. In response, the bill withholds 50 percent of the program funds until the Secretary of Defense submits a plan for the establishment of a Space Development Agency and an explanation of how the Air Force will work with that new organization to develop a unified an integrated space architecture.
The missile warning mission in space is tricky. The program’s predecessor, SBIRS, faced significant cost growth over the years. According to an April 3 Government Accountability Office report, the SBIRS program grew by $19.9 billion, or 265 percent, over initial estimates. Furthermore, the first satellite launch was delayed by roughly nine years and the fifth and sixth satellites, which are slated for launches in 2021 and 2022 respectively, are at risk of delay. At $1.6 billion, the Air Force’s 2020 budget request for SBIRS is double what Congress approved last year.
The committee plans to markup the bill on May 21.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.