On National Security | Space Force taken to task in 2023 defense legislation

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There is mostly good news for the U.S. Space Force in the 2023 defense authorization and appropriations bills that passed key committee votes in June on their way to the House and Senate floors.

Of the Pentagon’s nearly $24.6 billion request for the Space Force, the House Armed Services Committee authorized $24.3 billion, and the House Appropriations Committee — which writes the spending bills that provide the actual funds — approved $24.2 billion.

This signals strong support from congressional oversight committees that have made it clear they want the Pentagon to build up the military’s space capabilities and stay ahead of China and Russia. But Congress also is warning the Space Force against complacency, encouraging it to embrace innovative ways of doing business in areas like space launch and use of commercial space services.

The harshest critique came from the House Appropriations defense subcommittee (HAC-D), which questioned the credibility of the Space Force request. In a report accompanying their bill, appropriators said that the Space Force’s “ambitious plans for new architectures, programs and mission areas do not appear to be backed up with credible budget projections in the out years.”

Mike Tierney, chief of legislative affairs at the National Security Space Association, said this language speaks to the uncertainty about future funding and is meant as a warning to the Space Force to be candid with Congress about the true cost of its programs.

Speaking June 28 at an NSSA online event, Tierney said the HAC-D comments are in reaction to forecasts from the White House Office of Management and Budget that show Space Force funding increasing slightly in fiscal year 2024 but declining between 2025 and 2027.

It’s fair for the committee to question whether the Space Force should start programs that it cannot afford, he said. It’s also a test for the new Space Warfighting Analysis Center, an organization the Space Force created to study future requirements and estimate their cost. The budget proposal includes $430 million for the SWAC over five years.

The HAC-D admonition should be seen by the Space Force as an opportunity to show the value of the SWAC and build goodwill with skeptical appropriators, Tierney argued.

Everyone knows that the Pentagon’s long-term budget projections have some “funny money” (namely, optimistic forecasts about available funding and future costs) and space budgets are no exception, he noted. So the committee is really just asking the Space Force to “convince Congress that the work of the SWAC and the investments that are underlying the 2023 request are credible projections for what the service needs.”

Other issues raised by the defense committees in their markups relate to the procurement of space launch and other commercial space services.

Congress has consistently directed DOD to invest in smallsat launch capabilities and has funded a program known as “responsive space.” The Space Force in the 2023 request did not request funds for this program. Meanwhile, Congress continues to press DOD to get on board. The House Armed Services Committee also is urging the Space Force to replace its preferred approach of buying national security launch services from only two vendors with an open competition model.

Both the HASC and HAC-D asked for detailed reports on Space Force plans to buy services from the space commercial industry such as broadband communications and space surveillance.

Todd Harrison, senior vice president and head of research at Meta Aerospace, said he is baffled by DoD’s slow adoption of commercial space technology despite congressional pressure to move more aggressively.

Speaking at the NSSA event, he pointed at the billions of dollars the Space Force is budgeting to buy “Battlestar Galactica” military satellites even as DOD keeps talking about using more commercial technology. “I scratch my head,” said Harrison.

“I think that’s something that Congress will be digging into more,” he added. It’s a legitimate question the Space Force should answer: “How serious are they about leveraging advances in commercial space technologies?


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the July 2022 issue.