The Complex

The Air Force's $40 Billion Space Push

America's civilian space program may be on life support, now that the Space Shuttle's gone. But its military space program is very much alive -- and about to get much, much bigger. In the coming decades, the U.S. Air Force plans to pour an additional $36 to $40 billion into its effort to put military and spy satellites in orbit using commercial rocket services.

The Air Force is using that cash to add 60 launches between 2018 and 2030 to its $35 billion rocket launch effort called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. EELV is the Air Force's program to pay private businesses to build and launch the rockets that carry Defense Department satellites into orbit. This planned cash infusion would make EELV one of the Pentagon's top ten spending programs, InsideDefense points out. This comes just two years after the EELV program began experiencing massive cost increases -- that sucked funding from other space initiatives -- due to a spike in the price of rocket production. (Interestingly, one of the rockets currently used in the EELV program, the Atlas V, relies on a Russian engine to get it off the ground.)

For almost a decade, the air service has purchased launches from a joint business venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing called United Launch Alliance. However, the Pentagon has recently decided to introduce real competition to the EELV program starting in 2018. Rocket-makers ATK, Lockheed, Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk's SpaceX are all planning to bid to send the military's satellites into space between 2018 and 2030.

While much of the military is facing budget cuts, space systems are one of the Pentagon's six "key initiatives" to counter adversaries with rapidly modernizing militaries. These initiatives -- missile defense, space, cyber, the reserve wings of the military, science and technology research, and the military's weapon's buying community -- were deemed priority spending areas to ensure the U.S. can achieve its long term security goals despite a decrease in defense spending over the next decade.

Ask any Pentagon planner and they will tell you that countries like China, Russia -- and to a lesser extent Iran -- have been focusing on shaving down the enormous technological advantage the U.S. military has enjoyed over its rivals over the last two decades. To do this, foreign militaries are investing in everything from stealth jets and long range ballistic missiles to cyber weapons aimed at disrupting U.S. communications networks to anti-satellite missiles capable of bringing down American spy and GPS navigation satellites.

The Pentagon used to dominate other militaries in space. That dominance is no longer a given. In early 2007, for instance, China displayed its ability to destroy satellites when it shot down an aging weather satellite -- a move that prompted outcry from the U.S. for creating a massive, and potentially dangerous, debris field in space. In 2011, China conducted more space launches than the U.S. for the first time ever. Beijing is also introducing its own network of GPS satellites so that it won't have to rely on the current system that's run by the U.S. Air Force. It's all part of an expansion of China's "space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, meteorological, and communications satellite constellations," according to a 2013 Pentagon report on the topic. "In parallel, China is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict."

So the Pentagon feels its needs more cash for more launches to stay ahead. The U.S. may be trimming the size of its ground forces, retiring Cold War era jets, contemplating changes to the military's pay and benefits system and even cutting NASA's budget in an effort to save cash. But in space, the Pentagon sees all sorts of room for expansion.

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