AF Prepares to Shut Down Space Fence, But Final Decision Not Made Yet

AF Prepares to Shut Down Space Fence, But Final Decision Not Made Yet

Air Force Space Command (AFSC) issued a press release today highlighting another casualty of sequestration — the “space fence” that detects space objects circling Earth.  AFSC was careful in the text of the statement — if not in its title — to say that it is only getting ready to shut it down, not that a final decision has been made.  Still, only a few weeks remain for Congress or the Pentagon to change course and keep it operating until its replacement is ready in 2017.

Officially called the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), it consists of three radar transmitters and six receivers spread across the continental United States at 33 degrees latitude.  The system transmits radar signals upward into space and any object crossing its path is thus detected.   It is one part of the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network and its advantage is that it detects anything crossing through the signals; no previous data are needed as with other systems that track objects based on prior observations. 

Operational since 1961, however, its accuracy is limited.  The Air Force is building a new system, formally called Space Fence, with initial operational capability planned for 2017 although a contractor has not yet been chosen.   Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are competing for the contract.   The new system will be much improved over AFSSS.   AFSC Commander Gen. William Shelton said it is impossible to compare the two systems’ capabilities because it is like “apples and oranges.”

The new system is years away, however.  In the meantime, Shelton said the country nonetheless will have a “solid” capability to know what’s in orbit using the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier Air Force Station, ND and a space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base, FL.  No metric was provided to assess how “solid” that capability would be without the AFSSS.

AFSC said that shutting down AFSSS will save the Pentagon $14 million a year beginning in FY2014, which starts on October 1.  The press release stopped short of saying that it will be shut down for certain.  Instead, it reported that “[d]ue to resource constraints caused by sequestration,” the current contractor has been notified that the government “likely will not exercise the next contract option” that begins on October 1.  It adds that final decisions on FY2014 funding matters “will be made over the next few weeks,” hinting that the issue is still being debated and a last minute reprieve remains possible.  Even if operations are discontinued, they apparently could resume if funding is made available because “equipment will not be removed until a final disposition determination is made.”

The House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC’s) report on the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1960, H. Rept. 113-102) praises the effort to build a new Space Fence, for which the Pentagon is requesting $377.7 million in FY2014.   HASC and its Senate counterpart both recommend full funding of that request.  The House passed its version of the bill in June.   The bill has not been debated by the Senate yet.   Neither committee report comments on the possibility of terminating AFSSS four years before the new system is ready.  The House report says only that the current system “is reaching its end-of-life” and building a new one is important.

Shelton indicated last month that the contractor for the new Space Fence had been chosen, but the contract would not be awarded until DOD’s Strategic Choices and Management Review was completed.   Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the results of that review on July 31, but no announcement has been made yet about the Space Fence contractor.

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