Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz), center, wants a legal opinion on whether the purchase of Russian rocket engines violates U.S. sanctions. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the Defense Department has cut too much from investments into space research and development, putting U.S. orbital assets at risk for threats from Russia and China.

“This space threat has developed with alarming speed,” McCain said. “And yet, during the same time period, the Department of Defense has significantly reduced research and development dedicated to space systems, dropping from $5 billion to less than $1 billion over the past six years (Fiscal Years 2009 to 2016).”

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made the statement in a document his office published that details the senator’s ideas for defense spending over the next five years.

Entitled “Restoring American Power,” the report could be influential in the budgeting process given the influence McCain wields in Congress.

However, it likely will be some months before lawmakers begin to consider the 2018 budget and beyond. The House and Senate have yet to pass a new budget for fiscal 2017, instead passing a continuing resolution that will hold spending at last year’s levels until April.

And beyond indicating that he wants to contribute more money to defense, incoming President Donald Trump hasn’t given many specifics on how he’ll weigh in on the 2017 or 2018 budget.

When debate over the budget does start up again, McCain said he wants to see more funding go to space.

“The Department of Defense has finally awoken to the reality that we must invest in the next generation of space capabilities, and recent budgets have begun to arrest the decline in those investments,” he wrote. “Over the next five years, space must be a priority for additional funding to ensure that the United States maintains its space superiority and has the capabilities and capacity to deter and defend our critical space assets in future conflicts.”

The senator also called upon his colleagues, noting that many milspace R&D investments will, by their nature, be classified.

“Congressional oversight is thus even more vital to ensuring that the Department of Defense is spending sufficiently, and wisely, on space,” McCain said.

While McCain focused on a need for increased research and development spending, the Defense Department says it’s already beefed up funds for space protection and operational efforts. Over the course of the five-year future years defense program (FYDP) from 2015 to 2020, the Pentagon said it is setting aside $5.5 billion to focus on space defense activities.

In an interview with SpaceNews last year, the Air Force broke down some of the areas where that money is being invested, including Space Fence for better tracking of objects in orbit; the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center or JICSpOC to better unify space efforts across the branches of military service and partner with the private sector; upgrades to ground-based radar; and the Counter Communication System to allow the U.S. to jam enemy command and control.

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...