Pentagon's new Space Development Agency seeks $10.6 billion over five years
By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: October 4, 2019
A new space agency created by the Pentagon to expedite deployment of as many as 1,200 satellites plans to request almost $11 billion over five years despite skepticism in Congress toward the nascent effort.
The Space Development Agency, created in March over objections from the Air Force, started slowly with an initial setup budget of $150 million. Last month, its leaders proposed an increase to about $259 million for fiscal 2021 and then a jump to $1.1 billion in 2022, $1.9 billion in 2023, $3.67 billion in 2024 and $3.68 billion in 2025, according to figures obtained by Bloomberg News.
The agency is separate from the new Space Command, and both stop short of President Donald Trump's controversial demand to create a Space Force as a separate branch of the military.
The Defense Department's budget planning for fiscal 2021 through fiscal 2025 is still in its early stages, and the Space Development Agency's request is likely to change before the budget's expected release in February. Still, the agency's initial five-year proposal suggests the ambitious scope of the project to design, demonstrate, build and eventually launch six layers of satellite constellations and related ground stations.
The planned "National Defense Space Architecture" would provide satellites in low-earth orbit to monitor and pass along data for targeting new hypersonic weapons if China or Russia launched an attack.
The budget request is sure to receive intense scrutiny in Congress. Lawmakers already have made clear their doubts about the agency, which has no track record. They omitted the Space Development Agency's $20 million request from a stopgap spending bill for the current fiscal year.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, the panel's top Republican, denied an earlier Pentagon request to shift $15 million to the space agency. In a July 3 letter, they cited the abrupt departure of its first director and an "apparent change of direction" for the office.
Cristina Chaplain, director of space program reviews for the Government Accountability Office, said early briefings by the Space Development Agency are promising, indicating it's "open to a wide range of solutions and suppliers," which could "help avoid the kinds of problems we have seen on large-scale satellite programs."
Still, she said, the Pentagon will have to make tradeoffs to fund such a rapidly expanding program.
Current U.S. satellite constellations to detect foreign missile launches, support missile defenses and monitor space "consist of a few, highly capable systems that reside in higher Earth orbit," Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for the new space agency, said in a Sept. 27 statement.
"One of the unmet challenges" for the new agency, she said, is creating "an ability to quickly, reliably" and affordably "detect and track advanced missile threats" in lower orbits.
Elzea didn't have a comment on the budget proposal. But in its written statement the agency said it hoped to avoid the year-to-year fluctuations in funding that have followed past satellite failures by openly communicating its needs and progress to the Defense Department and Congress.
Most of the proposed five-year budget would go toward development and "enhancements" of as many as 250 data and communications satellites through 2025 which are intended to be the backbone of the constellation. The agency envisions an initial capability of 20 satellites by 2022, with $3.6 billion earmarked through 2025.
Elzea said that the agency's goal is "capitalizing on commercial space developments in small satellites and making slight alterations for military systems." She cited the success of Elon Musk's SpaceX "in launch vehicle development and its rapid deployment of a tranche of Starlink satellites."
The agency hasn't determined what rockets it would use to launch the military satellites. Elzea said it's "conducting market research to identify capabilities extant in industry and inventorying capabilities planned by the Air Force and others."
Bloomberg's Travis Tritten contributed.