WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers want more details on the potential implications of a Space Force plan to make cuts to the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellite program that’s designed to provide missile warning capabilities from space.
Next-Generation OPIR satellites are meant to identify ballistic missiles from polar and geosynchronous orbits, more than 22,000 miles above the Earth. The Space Force planned to build and launch three GEO-based and two polar-orbiting spacecraft, but its fiscal 2024 budget would remove one geosynchronous, or GEO, satellite from the constellation.
Lockheed Martin is building the GEO satellites and Northrop Grumman is developing the polar spacecraft.
In its fiscal 2024 defense policy bill, released July 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns about the service’s decision, calling for a detailed analysis on the risk of eliminating one satellite would impact U.S. Strategic Command’s missile warning mission.
“Although the Space Force has stated that curtailing the program prior to execution of all three satellites would have little to no effect, the committee has not received comprehensive analysis to show that to be the case, nor assurances that this curtailment would have no effect on the Space Force’s ability to meet STRATCOM requirements,” the committee said in a report accompanying its bill.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman told lawmakers in March that the service determined that a “two-by-two” constellation — meaning two polar and two GEO satellites — would be “sufficient to ensure that the mission did not have any gaps.”
Lawmakers in both the Senate and the House want documentation to back up that claim. In the House Appropriations Committee’s FY24 spending bill, it calls for a similar report on the risks posed by launching just two GEO satellites.
Appropriators said they are “troubled by the lack of analysis” to support the service’s proposal.
The Space Force’s move to shrink the size of its Next-Gen OPIR program comes as the service is changing its approach to tracking missile threats from space. It has traditionally operated these spacecraft from GEO, but as Russia and China develop hypersonic missiles that can travel and maneuver at Mach 5 speeds, the Space Force wants to strengthen its defense against those weapons by launching smaller satellites to more diverse orbits.
A 2021 review by the Space Warfighting Analysis Center recommended an expanded architecture that features smaller satellites in low Earth orbit, about 1,200 miles above the planet, and medium Earth orbit, which is located between LEO and GEO.
The Space Development Agency and Space Systems Command are building those spacecraft under a program called Resilient Missile Warning and Tracking. The service’s budget proposes $2.3 billion for the LEO and MEO satellites in fiscal 2024 and $16 billion through fiscal 2028. The funding profile is a $9 billion increase above last year’s five-year forecast.
Although Next-Gen OPIR will play a smaller role in that future vision, Space Force officials say it is important to keep the program intact until the service demonstrates its new satellites can provide global coverage.
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.