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SDA’s $11B Five-Year Budget Draft Not Likely To Fly

Posted by Theresa Hitchens on

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The SDA’s draft five-year budget would include studies of space-based interceptors for missile defense

WASHINGTON: The Space Development Agency (SDA) ambitious $11 billion draft FYDP budget is getting “lots of eye rolls” from Pentagon budget staff and chances for it succeeding are practically nil.

The draft budget request is unlikely to make it out of the internal DoD budget process, sources involved in the debate say, much less past congressional scrutiny. Of course, we don’t think it likely Congress will get around to passing any budget legislation at all over the next year.

“There were lots of eye rolls” from Pentagon budget staff when new SDA Director Derek Tournear briefed them last week, one source said.

The enormous draft budget plan — going from $150 million this fiscal year to $11 billion over the next five years has raised more questions in the minds of those who are highly skeptical of SDA’s value. House defense Democrats have been particularly hard to convince, with appropriators cutting DoD’s $150 million fiscal 2020 request by 45 percent, down to $81.8 million. The House Armed Services Committee denied DoD’s request to reprogram $15 million in fiscal 2019 funds for SDA.

“This is not going to be helpful over on the Hill,” one former congressional staffer said. “In fact, it could put the final nails in SDA’s coffin.”

In particular, SDA’s missile defense related plans detailed in the draft budget, including its intent to launch studies on space-based interceptors (SBI), have hardened the beliefs of some skeptics that SDA’s “real” purpose is to serve as a “toy box” (a term more than one source used) for Mike Griffin, head of Pentagon R&E, to pursue his own long-standing interests. (Griffin was a strong advocate for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative back in the 1980s, including the push for SBIs.)

“MDA didn’t ask for money to study space-based interceptors in FY20,” one source explained, “and SBI is a bone of contention in Congress between the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Well informed sources say Griffin has little love for the Missile Defense Agency’s current direction, and that he made his August decision to cancel Boeing’s contract for a new ballistic missile interceptor, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, without even consulting the MDA leadership.

Todd Harrison, head of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and veteran space budget analyst, said that “if this leaked document is indicative of what ends up in the budget request next year, it sounds like they are actually including money to begin real programs for new communications and missile sensing capabilities.” However, he said, “The space sensor layer would seem to overlap with the sensor technology MDA has been developing, and the transport layer would seem to overlap with the satellite communications programs currently managed by SMC [Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center].”

Harrison further said that the budget plan “begs the question of why they are standing it up under OSD in the first place.” At this point, he said, DoD would be better off moving it as soon as possible to the proposed Space Force — in whatever form eventually approved by lawmakers.

The SDA budget plan, according to our colleague Tony Capaccio who broke the story, asks for $259 million for fiscal 2021; $1.1 billion in 2022, $1.9 billion in 2023, $3.67 billion in 2024 and $3.68 billion in 2025. By contrast, most of SDA’s 2020 budget request was for personnel.

According Tony’s story, SDA’s top priority is developing and orbiting by 2025 some 250 data “transport” satellites to link other DoD satellites to each other and the ground, at a cost of $3.5 billion. Tournear told reporters at the Air Force Association’s 2019 annual meeting in mid-September that SDA intends to demonstrate the new satellites in 2021, and launch the first 20 in 2022.

SDA spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea told Breaking D yesterday that the agency would not confirm the draft budget numbers, noting that it is extremely early in the Pentagon budget process so changes are likely. Indeed, few service or DoD agency draft budgets make it past the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office unchallenged. Once all the service/agency five-year Program Objective Memorandums (POMs) are approved, the entire DoD budget request is sent to OMB for approval and transmission by the president to Congress.

On a good year, the budget hits Capitol Hill in February. This isn’t likely to be a good year, given the impeachment process underway in the House. Congress has yet to pass the 2020 federal budget, with the government operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR, that keeps spending to 2019 levels) until Nov. 21. Several Hill watchers say odds are that Congress will fail to agree on DoD’s budget by that date, and yet another CR being passed.

“My fear is a we are looking at a year long CR,” said one former DoD official said. Indeed, as Breaking D readers are well aware, that fear is being echoed up and down the Pentagon’s vast hallways.

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