The U.S. Space Force’s fiscal 2024 budget request zeroes research and development funding for one of the three planned geosynchronous orbit (GEO) Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR) missile warning satellites by Lockheed Martin [LMT], as the Space Force posits that having a band of many, smaller satellites in lower orbits will complicate an adversary’s anti-satellite targeting and improve deterrence against adversary missile attacks more than a handful of U.S. satellites in higher orbits.

Last year’s appropriation for the Next Gen OPIR GEO satellites was nearly $1.7 billion, while the fiscal 2024 request comes in around $720 million–a reduction of more than $975 million.

Plans had called for the first block of the Next Gen OPIR constellation to have three GEO satellites to cover Earth’s mid-latitudes and two satellites in polar highly elliptical orbits (HEO) for upper latitude coverage.

“I’m concerned that the FY 24 budget request appears to propose cutting the third GEO Next Gen OPIR satellite,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told Chief of Space Operations B. Chance Saltzman at a March 14 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces panel. “Does the Space Force intend to complete that [Next Gen OPIR] architecture, as planned, and, if not, how are you going to mitigate it? That’s a huge loss.”

Fischer is the ranking member of the SASC strategic forces panel.

“The architecture that we really need is one that’s survivable in a contested domain,” Saltzman replied. “That’s the proliferated LEO [low Earth orbit] and multiple orbits–to include Middle Earth Orbit–as well. That’s what the Space Development Agency and the [Space Force] SWAC [Space Warfighting Analysis Center] analysis that we did is progressing towards, and that’s the investment we made in FY 24 to make that pivot.”

“Because that’s a pretty big technical shift, we wanted to make sure that we, for this ‘no fail’ mission, had some hedges to make sure that we didn’t miss anything,” he said. “We are committed to putting Next Gen OPIR on orbit, and we felt like a ‘two [GEO satellites] by two [HEO satellites]’ was sufficient to ensure one, that the mission did not have any gaps–it’s a ‘no fail’ mission–and two, it’s a hedge against any technical risk associated with the pivot to the more survivable missile warning, missile track architecture.”

“We have the plans with Next Gen OPIR for two GEO [satellites] and two HEO [satellites],” Saltzman said. “That constellation we are still supporting, and the FY 24 budget has those four satellites in it. That’s the long-term transition to the proliferated missile warning [architecture], but GEO satellites are too much of a target so having them in low-Earth and mid-Earth orbit creates a targeting problem for an adversary…It’s more resilient and creates a level of deterrence because they can’t attack those satellites.”