Trump’s defense priorities should give military space a boost — provided Congress goes along
WASHINGTON — U.S. defense stocks rode Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to solid gains, a sign Wall Street thinks the president-elect will make good on his campaign promise to boost defense spending. Analysts say some of that increase, presumably, would find its way into military space programs.
While Trump did not say much about space on the campaign trail, his space policy advisers have flagged Chinese and Russian “military-focused space initiatives” as cause for concern.
Writing in SpaceNews, former U.S. congressman Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, promised Trump would increase military space spending to “reduce our current vulnerabilities and assure that our military commands have the space tools they need.”
Trump in 2013 endorsed mandatory across-the-board spending cuts that took effect that year as a way to rein in government spending. The cuts, known as sequestration, remain in effect until 2021 unless repealed by Congress.
Trump has since said the defense cuts have gone too far and — supported by Republican hawks in Congress — is looking to pour renewed resources into the Pentagon.
In a September campaign speech in Philadelphia, Trump blamed President Barack Obama for “oversee[ing] deep cuts in our military, which only invite more aggression” from U.S. adversaries.
Trump hasn’t given many specifics, but has indicated he wants to put military spending back on a growth path.
So what does that mean for military space?
A lot will depend on who Trump appoints as his defense secretary and national security adviser, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Among the names making the rounds for these posts are U.S. Sens. Jeff Session (R-Ala.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn. Trump’s transition team for defense agencies is being led in part by Mira Ricardel, a former senior Defense Department official, who has spent the better part of the last 10 years working for Boeing’s Network and Space Systems and Strategic Missile and Defense Systems units.
Harrison said while Trump might want to undo sequestration, it won’t be easy.
“I think it is important to remember that the [Budget Control Act] budget caps are existing law,” Harrison said. “To increase spending for defense or non-defense, Congress has to pass a law altering the budget caps or reclassify funding as being war-related. Either way, these measures are going to have a hard time getting through the Senate and House with such narrow Republican majorities, especially given the number of fiscal hawks in the Republican caucus.”
That could “effectively limit whatever space ambitions the Trump administration will have for both civil and military space,” Harrison continued.
Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force captain specializing in space surveillance, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, a Boulder, Colorado-based think tank, said Trump hasn’t outlined his space policy thinking in much detail.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty on that question, just like everything else,” he said. “As far as the budget, Trump’s supporters include those who want American to have a strong military, but also those who want to reign in government spending. I don’t know how to reconcile those two potentially opposing views at this point when it comes to military spending.”
U.S. military alliances in space could be called into question, Weeden said, in a wave of isolationism.
“Trump has also talked publicly about reconsidering some of our alliances and international obligations,” he said. “I think a lot of our traditional allies are going to be asking themselves how much they can rely on the U.S. for their security. And there are also a lot of efforts currently underway to forge closer ties with our allies in space, which I think we have to call into question at this point.”
But Weeden also said the Trump White House could see pushback from departments and agencies.
“It’s important to keep in mind that the president doesn’t have complete control over the executive branch,” he said. “Presidents always run up against institutional interests when it comes to implementing their policies. Much of what the Obama administration is doing on national security space is being pushed by the bureaucracy, not necessarily the top political leadership.”
Jacques & Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm focused on defense, space, and homeland security, took a look at some of Trump’s statements and those from his campaign stand-ins, as well as SpaceNews’ op-ed written by Trump advisers, and found that some of the ideas “suggests employing constellations of micro-satellites for servicing the warfighter.”
The review also noted that Trump believes that Chinese and Russian investment in their military space programs could pose a threat to the U.S., a sentiment shared by many in the Pentagon.
Dan Stohr, a spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, a commercial advocacy and lobbying group, said he believes the outlook for military space is “promising.”
“Again, we have to see where the topline [defense budget] is going to go,” he said. “The anticipation is that it’s going to go up.”
That’s in part due to an expressed “increased appetite” from politicians “for either raising or limiting the Budget Control Act caps which would definitely free up at least top line money for defense and very likely for space defense,” he said.
But despite an expected boost in defense spending, Stohr said it’s too early to tell how much money in a bolstered defense budget will head specifically to space.
“Until we get some sort of signal on where spending is going to go, you’re not going to get a sense of which programs are going to benefit,” he said, adding that a lot will depend on whether Congress passes another stopgap spending measure when the current one expires Dec. 9, or takes up full-year appropriations.
The companies that could benefit from a growth in defense spending are still evaluating the potential impacts.
Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, said it’s too early for the company to comment specifically about space, but said that “over the coming months, we will continue to work closely with the transition team and congressional leadership on critical issues that impact our customers, our business and our industry.”
And at least one of those congressional leaders, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), sees an opening to bolster military space operations.
“Unified Republican control of the executive and legislative branches offers an opportunity to end defense budget cuts, restore military readiness, and make desperately needed reforms and investments across the national security space enterprise,” the congressman said in a statement sent to SpaceNews.
Bridenstine is said to be a candidate for NASA administrator for Air Force secretary in the Trump administration.