As the Air Force continues to develop its next generation of early missile warning satellites, it requires an additional $632 million in fiscal year 2019 to meet an initial launch capability of 2025 for its first satellite, officials said this week.

Last year, the service set an ambitious goal of fielding the first next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) space vehicle by 2023, within five years of the program’s launch. Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said in a May release that “This is an important system for the nation, and to ‘go for the gold’ by targeting five years instead of nine years allows us to pick up the pace to defend the nation.”

Artist’s concept of an SBIRS GEO spacecraft. Image: Lockheed Martin.

However, the service has fallen behind on that “gold medal” goal and will require additional funding from Congress to meet a 2025 initial launch timeline, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) Commander Lt. Gen. John T. Thompson said March 27 during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on Capitol Hill.

“We originally envisioned being able to go as fast as 2023. However, the costs in the budget were just not able to make us to that gold-medal level,” Thompson said in response to questions from SASC Strategic Forces Chair Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

Further, the service is requesting two above-threshold reprogramming (ATR) authorities – one for fiscal year 2018 funds and one for FY ’19 funds – that would allow it to remain on track for a 2025 initial launch, he added.

“We are still looking for about $600 million worth of above-threshold-reprogrammings that we’re working very closely with the [Defense] Department and the Hill” to approve, he said. “The FY ‘18 ATR was approved by the Hill … but not all of the sources were. So we’re trying to get the sources in line.” The service is requesting $400 million in FY ’19 ATR authorities, Thompson said.

Congress approved $344 million in above-threshold reprogramming in the FY ’18 budget, the Air Force said in an email to Defense Daily March 28. “However, the sources approved were only sufficient to fund $112 million of the requirement, leaving a remaining unfunded balance of $232 million,” Maj. Will Russell, an Air Force spokesman, said. “Adding this shortfall to the $400 million unfunded requirement in FY ’19 brings the total FY ’19 reprogramming requirement to $632 million.”

Over half of that request would go toward payload development, increasing personnel support and expediting design, engineering and requirements development, the Air Force said. The remaining funds would pay for increasing spacecraft development personnel in support of systems engineering and requirements development, support long-lead item procurement for communications and other hardware, and “restore full efforts to design and build other key bus components.”

Thompson noted that the service has still managed to accelerate the program two years ahead of what would typically be expected under a traditional procurement program, stating that the Section 804 authorities that Congress approved for the Air Force have been “a godsend” for keeping the program on track.

“Using those rapid prototyping authorities from section 804, we were able to put both layers, if you will, of our Next-Gen OPIR on contract within six months, saving at least a year of time from the standpoint of what we’ve had to do when we were conducting a traditional source selection,” he said.

The Air Force has a quarterly requirement to come to the Hill and update lawmakers on the program, along with the rest of its Section 804-related efforts, Thompson noted. “We want to make sure that the rigor and the robustness of the oversight that we’re providing the contractors is there from the get go. We also want to make sure that our board of directors – the Congress – is kept fully appraised of what we are doing.”

The Next-Gen OPIR program is slated to replace the Air Force’s current constellation of Space-Based Infrared Surveillance satellites with five systems in Geosynchronous orbit and two Polar satellites. The service last May announced its intent to award a sole-source contract to Lockheed Martin Space [LMT] to define requirements, create the initial design and identify and procure flight hardware for a satellite to operate in geosynchronous orbit. It awarded the not-to-exceed $2.9 billion contract for three Next-Gen OPIR satellites under Block 0 in August 2018 (Defense Daily, Aug. 14, 2018).

It awarded a second sole-source contract worth $47 million to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems [NOC] to analyze system and program requirements for the polar satellites.

Lockheed Martin this past October down-selected Raytheon [RTN] and a Northrop Grumman-Ball Aerospace [BLL] team to compete to provide the Next-Gen OPIR mission payload, with a final provider to be selected in 2020 following critical design review (Defense Daily, Oct. 4, 2018).