US Space Command under budget pressure, re-examines future

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US Air Force Space Command is establishing its priorities ahead of the pending sequestration that will cut $580 million from its budget - including shutting down surveillance sites and re-examining future satellite constellations.

Two of the six receiver sites that comprise the 'space fence' - which maintains surveillance of space objects over the United States - have been put into "cold storage," says Gen William Sheldon, commander of US Air Force Space Command. The deactivation leaves a gap in coverage over the eastern US seaboard.

In addition, a separate surveillance radar in North Dakota is now operated only eight hours per day. Another radar on Shemya Island, Alaska, was set to follow suit, but has been left at full power due to political tensions with North Korea, which has repeatedly threatened to fire missiles at the US.

The $5 million annually it takes to operate the radar at full power must be diverted from other programmes, says Shelton.

"It's going to be a very difficult time over the next few years here as we reduce budgets," Shelton said, speaking to reporters at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"We clearly have changing environmental conditions. We've got counter-space weaponry, we've got those budget constraints - we've got some very tough choices ahead. Status quo is an option, but I don't think it's a very good one," he said.

Though the immediate budget cuts affect the agency, the overall financial concern is forcing it to re-examine its priorities, including what satellite constellations will launch.

Sheldon cites missile warning, communications and navigation satellites as must-haves, and says they are essentially planned through 2020. Their replacements will likely be different than currently envisioned - probably involving more numerous but smaller and less capable satellites.

There is "nothing wrong with the capability, [they are] just not resilient, and very expensive," says Shelton.

The National Space Symposium runs from 8-11 April.