WASHINGTON — The ground control segment of the U.S. Air Force's next-generation GPS system is heading toward a key milestone, a service official said Wednesday.

The Operational Control System program, known as OCX, will hit its Milestone B review next month — the program's first major event since the Pentagon decided to re-baseline the program after it breached Nunn-McCurdy cost thresholds, said  Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, the Air Force's director of space programs.

During the review, the Defense Acquisition Board will validate the program's requirements; assess the contractor's plan for delivering the capability; and certify a new cost estimate for the program, which is currently in the works, he told reporters during a briefing on the Air Force's space budget request for fiscal year 2018.

For full FY18 budget coverage, click here.

"The program is not out of the woods," he said.

In its FY18 budget, the Air Force requested $511 million for OCX, keeping spending flat compared to the enacted total from last year. The service continues to closely monitor contractor progress in quarterly meetings with manufacturer Raytheon, and although there has been progress, Teague warned that OCX could still be cancelled if it gets off track again.

"The program has stabilized, and we are cautiously optimistic that we will see delivery of the capability in accordance with the recertified baseline that we’re laying in place," he said.

Overall, Air Force investment in space is slowly ramping up. Research, development, test and evaluation received increased by $913 million in FY18 when compared to the prior year’s budget request. The service requested was about $3.4 billion for space procurement in FY18, a $352 spike from their FY17 request. However, as Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, the projections in the FY17 budget request predicted space procurement amounting to $3.9 billion.

Part of the reason for that decrease could be the apparent deferral of two GPS III satellites, which were planned to be procured in FY18, according to the FY17 Future Years Defense Program. Teague could not immediately account for why the satellites had been delayed or the effect on the program as a whole.

The Air Force has also pushed out five launches outside of the FYDP to better align with developing programs, including GPS III, Teague said.

The service intends to begin seven new programs in 2018, including a space surveillance telescope that will be operated in Australia and protected satellite communications that will allow unmanned systems, special operators and other users to conduct missions in denied environments.

Of the new-start investments, the biggest is the Space-Based Infrared System, a constellation of geostationary and polar coverage satellites that will provide strategic missile warning coverage. The service requested $87.5 million for that program in the budget request.

The Air Force is also sustaining its investment in space launch capabilities. In FY18, it requested $957 million to fund Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle capability — which helps sustain current infrastructure — and $607 million for launch services, including three requested national security launches for that year.

As the congressionally mandated ban on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine moves closer, the service is increasing its spending on developing new launch capabilities that will rely on domestic propulsion systems. The Air Force requested $298 million for EELV launch service agreements, which it will use to fund public-private partnerships with two launch providers, likely SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Three companies — SpaceX, Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne — are currently developing new engines under a similar arrangement with the Air Force. ULA is set to choose between Blue Origin’s BE-4 and Aerojet’s AR1 this year, and the service has no plans to continue funding the alternate option, Teague said.

"That’s a choice that ULA makes. I’m interested in the launch service capability," he said. "I’m not going to continue to fund a separate engine that may not be used as part of our overall assured access requirement."

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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