Does the FY24 Budget Request Reflect Defense Priorities?
This commentary was originally published by the National Security Space Association on May 30, 2023, as part of a compilation of views on the U.S. Space Force budget from national security space experts.
While this is the fourth budget request for the U.S. Space Force, it is the first since the release of the Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and with the full slate of senior space leaders in place at the Department of Defense (DOD). So, how well does the FY 2024 budget request reflect the DOD’s strategy and leadership priorities?
Overall, national security space is prioritized in the DOD’s budget request. The Space Force topline of $30 billion reflects an impressive 15 percent increase over FY 2023 (and doubling since FY 2021). While this is the smallest budget across the military services by an order of magnitude, it has the highest percentage of growth. Beyond the program and personnel transfers from other services that marked prior years’ budget growth, this year’s request shows real growth in new capabilities, such as missile warning/missile tracking with satellites in low and medium Earth orbits (LEO and MEO), and increasing investments in research and development (a 16 percent increase). It also reflects a larger force, albeit the Space Force is still—by far—the smallest service, at a requested end strength level of 9,400 active-duty Guardians (the next smallest, the U.S. Marine Corps, is nearly 20 times larger).
This is the year of proliferated LEO in the budget request, consistent with the NDS emphasis on “diverse, resilient, and redundant satellite constellations” and the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration’s formula for success. In April 2023, the Space Development Agency (SDA) reached a key milestone with the launch of its first tranche of satellites, less than three years after contract awards. In the FY 2024 request, the SDA seeks an 80 percent increase for its Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (missile warning/missile tracking and data relay architecture), from $2.6 to $4.7 billion, with an additional $23 billion projected across FY 2025–FY 2028 to field hundreds of small satellites. The way ahead for MEO missile warning/missile tracking is unclear this year, with both SDA and the Missile Defense Agency—through its Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program—appearing to diverge in their approaches. Longer term, how SDA fares in the out-years will be one to watch as the DOD and Congress adjust to its different model of continuously buying, fielding, and replenishing small satellites rather than planning for big procurement spikes across a low number of large satellites.
Beyond SDA, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is “building a new constellation that will take us from dozens of systems on orbit in 2023, to hundreds of systems on orbit in the next few years,” and is partnering with the Space Force “to develop and acquire reliable and resilient GMTI [Ground Moving Target Indicator] systems at speed.” These proliferated architectures do not appear to be matched by comparable investments in ground systems, despite the emphasis on “delivering ground before launch.” This massive influx of missile warning and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data will need to be matched by tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities—including investments in autonomy, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing—to make sense of the data and deliver insights to users on relevant timelines.
Notably absent from the budget request are resources for commercial space, which is a marked contrast from the NDS declaration that the DOD be a “fast-follower where market forces are driving commercialization of militarily-relevant capabilities.” Short of a few mentions of “assessments” and “evaluations” of commercial services, unless classified, there is no explicit initiative or activity in the budget justification books or any signaling with out-year funding that the Space Force is committed to leveraging commercial space services. In addition to satellite communications (SATCOM) and launch, there are more opportunities to “buy what we can” with the expanded commercialization of ISR, environmental monitoring, and space situational awareness, as well as in-space servicing on the horizon.
The request contains a roughly 30 percent increase in space domain awareness and combat power, including additional resources for defensive cyberspace operations, and ramps up funding for protected and jam-resistant SATCOM and user terminals. However, it is difficult to identify the specific investments in space defense and counterspace capabilities aligned to the NDS emphasis on “fight[ing] through disruption by improving defensive capabilities,” as these are typically contained in classified program lines. Classified activities comprise the largest element of the Space Force budget request at $7.1 billion (24 percent of its budget) and grew 8 percent over the FY 2023 enacted level. Such an increase is likely to reflect growing space defense investments and further work with the Intelligence Community.
Finally, this is all for naught if the Congress does not pass a FY 2024 budget. The secretary of the Air Force, in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in March 2023, said that he “cannot overstate how devastating” it would be to revert to FY 2023 spending levels, and the chief of space operations characterized the impact to the Space Force as “catastrophic.”
Kari A. Bingen is the director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.