House Passes FY2018 “Make America Secure” Appropriations Bill

House Passes FY2018 “Make America Secure” Appropriations Bill

The House passed a FY2018 appropriations bill today that includes funding for the Department of Defense (DOD).  The defense appropriations bill was bundled with three others into the “Make America Secure” appropriations bill, H.R. 3219.  The only space-related amendment that was adopted during floor debate specifies $5 million for the Air Force’s commercial weather data pilot program.

H.R. 3219 combines four of the 12 regular appropriations bills:  Defense, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA), Energy-Water (the Department of Energy oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile), and Legislative Branch (which funds congressional operations).  In total, the bill provides $789 billion.  It passed 235-192 on largely party lines.

Of the total, $658 billion is for defense, substantially more than allowed under spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The House has not passed a Budget Resolution or reached other agreement to modify the BCA caps, so the path forward for the legislation is unclear.  By law, if Congress approves more money than allowed by the BCA caps, across-the-board cuts called a sequester automatically go into effect to reduce spending to the allowed limit.  That happened in FY2013 for DOD and other government agencies.  The effects were so dire that agreements were reached between Congress and the White House to lift the caps for FY2014-2015 and FY2016-2017, but nothing has been done so far with regard to FY2018.

Many aspects of the bill are controversial, such as funding to build the border wall with Mexico advocated by President Trump, but not with regard to space activities.  The House Rules Committee prevented an amendment from being brought to the House floor for debate that would have prohibited spending funds to create a Space Corps within the Air Force analogous to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy as directed in the House-passed version of the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

It allowed two other space-related amendments to be offered.  The first, by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), specifies $5 million for the Air Force’s commercial weather data pilot program to determine if commercially-available satellite data can be used in operational DOD weather forecasts.  It is similar to NOAA’s commercial weather data pilot program. Bridenstine created the NOAA program in a FY2016 appropriations bill.  The companion DOD program was created last year and the FY2018 NDAA extends it for another year.  The $5 million would pay for that extension.  The amendment was approved by the House as part of an en bloc amendment offered today by Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee.

The other was offered by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), the only physicist in the House.  He sought to prohibit funds from being spent on developing, procuring or deploying a space-based ballistic missile defense layer on the basis that it is technically infeasible.  The amendment was defeated by voice vote.

Overall, the bill pretty much follows the Administration’s request for DOD space activities, but there are some changes. For example, it cuts $160 million from the $3.2 billion requested for Air Force space procurement.

The majority of the cut, $132.4 million, is from advanced procurement for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High, the entirety of what was requested.  In its report on the bill, the House Appropriations Committee explained that the request “is not directed by a clearly defined strategy.  For example, the SBIRS analysis of alternatives remains incomplete, the wide field of view sensor has no clear transition path into a program of record, and the Committee is unaware of any sustained effort to integrate overhead persistent infrared requirements and capabilities across” DOD and the Intelligence Community.  The Committee also encourages the Air Force to focus “resources on the ground segment before building the space segment.”  DOD has been criticized for getting new satellites ready for launch before their associated ground systems are in place, meaning that the satellites are launched into orbit before their capabilities can be fully utilized.

The committee approved the $85.9 million requested for GPS III procurement, but noted that it understands the Air Force “continues to research the efficacy of recompeting the existing contract.”   The program has struggled with cost growth and schedule delays as detailed in several Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports.  The committee directs the Secretary of the Air Force to provide a report by February 1, 2018 on the results of a review “that considers solutions that minimize technical and schedule risk as well as maximize reutilization of existing technology and infrastructure investments.”

Those decisions affect procurement funding.  For Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E), the committee provided $295 million ($16.5 million less than requested) for SBIRS-High plus $71 million (the same as the request) for “evolved SBIRS.”  For GPS III RDT&E, the committee approved the $510 million requested for the ground segment (Operational Control Segment — OCX) plus $223.4 million for the space segment ($20 million less than the request).

The committee also approved the $297.6 million requested for RDT&E of a new rocket engine for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program to replace Russia’s RD-180 used for the Atlas V.  There is an ongoing debate over whether Congress should fund only a new engine — or, more accurately, a propulsion system — or a complete new launch system (of which propulsion is a part).  The House-passed FY2018 NDAA authorizes funding only for an engine and the appropriations committee followed suit.

The appropriations committee’s report also directs the Air Force to evaluate NATO allies’ launch infrastructure to determine how it might be used to provide assured access to space in an emergency.

The appropriations process still has a long way to go. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet marked up its version of the FY2018 defense appropriations bill, for example, but the overarching issue, as noted, is the lack of an agreement in the House or Senate, or between Congress and the White House, on how much money Congress may spend for FY2018.

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