The U.S. military is pushing for increased funding for its program to field next-generation early missile warning satellites in fiscal year 2021, as the Air Force and the nascent Space Force under it hope to field new systems by the mid-2020s.

The Space Force requested $2.3 billion in research-and-development funding for the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-led Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) program in the FY ’21 Presidential Budget Request, up from $1.4 billion requested in fiscal year 2020.

The plus-up is meant to keep the Defense Department from needing to reprogram additional funds as the year moves forward, the way it has been forced to do in the past, Will Roper, the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters at a Feb. 21 roundtable at the Pentagon.

“My hope for the program is … they’re not going to be worried about running out of money and their burn rates, [and] they can just really focus on the engineering,” Roper said. Last year, the Air Force requested $632 million in above-threshold requirements funding for FY ’18 and FY ’19 appropriations in order to keep on its projected timeline of fielding new satellites by 2025 (Defense Daily, March 29, 2019).

Roper called Next-Gen OPIR a “strategically important program” as the new Space Force – that now sits within the Department of the Air Force – and Lockheed Martin are working to “build satellites differently” with the use of Section 804 authorities to allow for rapid prototyping.

“In the future, I hope we can build different kinds of satellites, but we’re showing we can build satellites differently if we’ve got the latitude authority to do it,” Roper said.

The Air Force selected Lockheed Martin in 2018 to define requirements, create the initial design and identify and procure flight hardware for a satellite to operate in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and eventually replace the Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) currently being fielded. 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).

The company then down-selected Raytheon [RTN] and a Northrop Grumman [NOC]-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).

Roper expressed optimism for the progress of the program, noting the excitement that comes from working on a new type of satellite.

“It is the first defendable satellite we’re building,” he said. “There is a lot to learn about how to do this, so what’s nice about being the first of its kind is you tend to get the best engineers on the job,” he said.

When the Air Force requested reprogramming funds last year, service leaders also acknowledged that the its ambitious original timeline to field satellites by 2023 had been pushed two years to the right. But Roper said compared to the traditional SBIRS program, Next-Gen OPIR is “five years ahead in terms of similar milestones.”

“Not done yet, not declaring victory, but has the program made a great use of the last two years? Yes, they have,” Roper said. “Do I think that they’re going to succeed, based on everything I see now? I’d say yes, because I don’t have any reason to say no.”