Obama Wants More Money for Military Spy Satellites, Lasers, Space Fence

An NRO satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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An NRO satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

It could be a great year for lasers and spy satellites, but a bad one for drones on aircraft carriers.

President Barack Obama’s Defense Department budget request released Monday shows that the route to technological breakthroughs is often winding.

Last year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a new “offset strategy” to develop breakthrough solutions to secure American technological dominance into the next century. This year, the budget request increases money for research and development by about $500 million, bringing it to $13.5 billion.

It will be a great year for futuristic technologies that sound like they come from a comic book. But the budget also shows that every new invention has consequences and can raise new problems even as it solves others.

Obama requested a slight increase in spending for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which would bring their budget to $3 billion to work on next generation technology related to everything from synthetic biology to space planes. Money for electronic and laser weapon systems jumped to $67 million from a bit over $55 million last year.

For the first time, the budget allocates some $41.8 million for unmanned aerial vehicle “integration and interoperability.” That’s part of strategic plan rolled out in 2013.

The document lays out a wish list of capabilities for the drones of tomorrow. They include the ability to process vast amounts of sensed data rather than just transmit it, stay over a target for days and communicate with a wider variety of other systems. The missions also expand from just ISR and close ground support to air combat (presumably drone on drone) and even “non-lethal crowd control.”

The request also asks for 29 new Reaper drones, which are in demand to fight terrorism, a larger buy than last year. Not all drones fared well, however.

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, drone was basically sent back to the drawing board for a year. The program saw a drop of funding from more than $400 million down to just $134 million.

It’s the surest signal yet that the military increasingly understands that some of the most innovative thinking in technology is happening outside of the Pentagon

Many drone proponents were actually pleased. Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security has long argued that the UCLASS was poorly conceived, overloaded with intelligence capabilities and capable of 14 hours of uninterrupted flying. Program detractors like Shawn Brimley, executive vice president of the Center for a New American Security, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last year said that the plane should be reconsidered as more of a fighter with better weapons, even if that made it heavier. In fact, the entire fate of the aircraft carrier as a credible projection of power depended on it.

“It’s a question of ensuring that the aircraft carrier can project (and sustain) power over longer ranges. I don’t think the carrier air wing will be able to be all that effective in the future if we don’t develop something like a UCAV,” he said referring to a sizable drone that can provide real combat support to fighter jets, or that “that can complement other strike capabilities in the air wing,” and not just take pictures.

Navy representatives last year told the committee, “Frankly, that does not exist. It’s not technically achievable today.”

Perhaps next year?

The military has its eyes turned again to space. The budget requests $7 billion for Defense Department space programs. Expenditures for Navy satellite communications systems rose from $11 million to nearly $21 million. Spying from space also became more expensive. The request for space-based reconnaissance jumped from $78 million to  $100 million this year. Architecture and support for space electronic warfare rose from $18 million to nearly $30 million. The Air Force space situation awareness program rose from $9 million to $32 million (in the form of two satellites) and the nation’s $200 million dollar “space fence” a system to track bits of space debris and objects orbiting the Earth, received more money, bringing the total cost for that program to $243 million. 

The administration is requesting a big increase for the Defense Department’s manufacturing science and technology program, at $157 million compared to $90 million for last year. This request for information explains what they’re looking for: ideas related to 3-D printing and other “emerging manufacturing capabilities” as well as advanced propulsion, radar affordability and electronic warfare, transparent ceramics, advanced electronics and optics, and advanced materials manufacturing. Those advanced materials could go into everything from next-generation exosuits to meta-materials for optical cloaking, or invisibility

The Navy’s Rapid Technology Transition, or RTT, program would more than double it’s budget from $8.4 million to $18 million in fiscal 2016.  It’s a the surest signal yet that the military increasingly understands that some of the most innovative thinking in technology is happening outside of the Pentagon, but that current acquisition makes it hard to bring in new technologies from the outside to met demand. The RTT program will “transition technology from any source, including those not traditionally associated with defense technology.”

The RTT program is a great example of a military trying to open up. But the military has plenty of secret spending as well. Spending on classified Air Force programs increased from $14 billion to $15 billion this year.

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