The Pentagon with the Washington Monument and National Mall in the background. Credit: Air Force Senior Airman Perry Aston

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

When it comes to military space issues, the Pentagon and Congress have not always seen eye to eye. But in the appropriations bill that Congress passed in September to fund the Defense Department for 2019, lawmakers gave the Pentagon what it asked for: $8.1 billion for investments in space systems.

As DoD officials haggled with lawmakers over various sticking points of the $716 billion defense budget that President Trump signed into law three days before the government’s new fiscal year began Oct. 1, the Pentagon’s space proposals encountered little resistance from Congress.

“The dog that didn’t bark in the fiscal year 2019 budget was space,” U.S. Air Force Secretary Wilson recounted in December. “The fact is that we were able to build very broad consensus and significant support in the Congress without controversy.”

Congress approved the Pentagon’s 2019 budget as part of one of the few spending bills to reach Trump’s desk last year — a consolidated spending bill, H.R. 6157 that also provided full-year funding for the labor, health and human services and education departments (The partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22 resulted from Congress and the White House allowing funding for most other federal agencies to lapse).

A close examination of H.R. 6157 by budget analyst Mike Tierney of the Arlington, Virginia-based aerospace, defense and intelligence consulting firm Velos, shows congressional appropriators “provided pretty much exactly what the DoD requested for space, not substantially more or less.”

While the Pentagon says Congress provided more than $12 billion for unclassified space activities for 2019, Tierney said that total includes about $4 billion in personnel, operations and maintenance funds that cannot be traced to publicly available budget documents.

The $8.1 billion Congress ultimately provided for unclassified military space procurement and research & development for 2019 is about $20 million more than the Pentagon sought and some $900 million more than the $7.2 billion the Pentagon received for its space portfolio for 2018.

The Pentagon's $8.1 billion space budget

The increase targets primarily four areas: space launch, satellite communications, ground command networks and basic scientific research.

The Pentagon stands to spend the bulk of this year’s space procurement and R&D budget on launch services, satellites and ground systems, Tierney said, with comparatively smaller investments in research, development, testing and engineering (RDT&E).

One of the takeaways from Tierney’s numbers is that despite official rhetoric about space being an increasingly important domain of warfare, funding for space fluctuates along with all other military accounts. “Space doesn’t get special treatment,” Tierney said. “Generally speaking, it rises and falls with the tide of the DoD budget.”

When Congress capped federal spending in 2013, the Pentagon had to make cuts across the board, including space. Space procurement and R&D funding for 2013 was $6.6 billion, a dramatic drop from $9.1 billion in 2012. “What this tells us is that the trajectory of space funding tracks with the overall DoD top line over that period.”

Space funding stabilized after the 2013 sequestration cuts. When the Pentagon’s top-line increased in 2018, space procurement and R&D funding went up to $7.2 billion. DoD’s budget projections include $9.2 billion for space in 2020, $8.7 billion in 2021, $9.6 billion in 2022 and $9.5 billion in 2023.

Defense budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said these projected increases might be optimistic. “I think overall Congress supported space programs and activities in the FY2019 budget. But was that because the money was flowing freely and there was no need to make hard decisions? Or was it because Congress is making space a priority? I think it’s too soon to know,” he said. “It will be telling to see what happens when the overall budget starts declining again. That’s when we will know if DoD and Congress are protecting space programs.”

The White House is expected to submit its budget request for 2020 to Congress by Feb. 4. However, the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22 could still delay the Pentagon budget rollout even though it remained open thanks to Congress completing defense appropriations before resorting to short-term spending bills for most other federal agencies.

The White House forecast a year ago that its 2020 spending request would include $733 billion for national defense, a budget account that includes the military activities of the Department of Defense and nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy.

Trump in October said he wanted to trim federal spending by 5 percent across the board. Defense hawks on Capitol Hill have been trying to persuade the White House to increase national defense funding above $733 billion but the House of Representative’s new Democratic majority will push back on any funding boost for defense unless it’s accompanied by increases in domestic spending, which Republicans will resist. A lot of variables will be in play that could drive the DoD top-line up or down, along with space funding. Harrison said the Pentagon’s out-year projections historically are not reliable predictors of where the budget is headed but rather are statements of administration policy. In a deeply divided Washington, the military budget will be caught in the crossfire.


There are no big surprises in how Congress allocated the $8.1 billion it appropriated for space systems for 2019, as the priorities followed the Pentagon’s request. The largest share is for space launch ($2.4 billion). Next is positioning, navigation and timing ($1.4 billion), satellite communications ($984 million), missile warning ($978 million) and command-and-control ($835 million).


The bulk of the Defense Department’s $2.4 billion space launch budget will be used to pay United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to continue lofting national security payloads using their existing rockets. However, Congress provided the biggest plus-up for the continuation of an effort aimed at refreshing the field of launch providers vying for DoD business while ending U.S. dependence on the Russian RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. Congress provided $445 million in RDT&E dollars — $200 million more than the Air Force requested — to fund the Launch Service Agreement (LSA) program that in October awarded $2.3 billion worth of contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin to develop next-generation launch vehicles. The Air Force ultimately intends to select just two providers for its future launch business. SpaceX, which was passed over for development dollars last fall, remains eligible to compete for LSA launch contracts under a solicitation expected to begin late this year with the release of a draft request for proposal.

Meanwhile, Congress appropriated $954 million under the legacy Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program for the Air Force to order several more competitively-awarded launches from ULA and SpaceX this year before transitioning to the LSA era. The EELV budget also includes $660 million this year in so-called launch capability funding the Air Force provides ULA to help the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture keep both the Atlas 5 and the relatively seldom-used Delta 4 in service. The Air Force intends to do away with the direct subsidy in 2020 as DoD shifts toward a more commercial approach to buying launch services.

DoD space spending: past, present and future

Positioning, navigation and timing

Although the first GPS 3 satellite launched in December aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Defense Department continues to spend big on its fleet of 31 legacy GPS satellites and efforts to replace them with a more robust and jam-resistant positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) system.

The $1.4 billion Congress appropriated for PNT in 2019 includes $451 million for GPS 3 satellites being built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and $513 million for the accompanying ground system. The centerpiece of that effort, a next-generation ground control system, called OCX, has been plagued by delays, prompting the Air Force to pump more money into upgrading the existing GPS system as a stopgap.

Lockheed Martin is building the first 10 GPS 3 contracts under a 2008 contract. In September, the company was awarded a $7.2 billion contract for 22 follow-on GPS 3F satellites after Boeing and Northrop Grumman declined to bid.

Concerns about electronic interference with GPS signals have driven recent investments in more secure satellites and ground systems. The Air Force has developed a new military GPS signal called M-code that will be more secure and resistant to jamming and spoofing. The Air Force, Navy and Army in recent years have experimented with ways to augment space-¬based PNT capabilities with other technologies.

Satellite communications

In 2018, Congress disappointed satellite operators when it added an unexpected $600 million to DoD’s budget to fully fund the purchase of two more Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites from Boeing instead of buying more commercial services from the likes of Intelsat, Inmarsat, SES and others.

This year’s $984 million satellite communications budget, while slightly below DoD’s $1 billion request, is more notable for carving out $49.5 million for a new budget line for commercial satellite communications. Congressional appropriators took the money from the $61 million the Air Force had requested for so-called pathfinder initiatives to supplement or replace WGS services.

The shift was welcome news to commercial satellite operators that have sought for years to convince DoD to spend less on WGS satellites and more on commercial services. The WGS 11 and 12 satellites will still be procured, but with the addition of a new program line for commercial satcom, Congress is forcing DoD to figure out a strategy for the procurement of commercial services.

Other satellite communications programs receiving funding in 2019 include the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System narrowband constellation (led by Lockheed Martin), Enhanced Polar System satellites for communications in the northern polar region (Northrop Grumman), the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system for classified communications (Lockheed Martin) and the still-in-development Protected Tactical Satcom system that seeks to provide improved cybersecurity.

In the user equipment area, Congress added $10 million to DoD’s $9 million request for Secure Mobile Anti-Jam Reliable Tactical (SMART-T) terminals Raytheon is developing for the Army.

Missile warning

DoD received $978 million for missile-warning satellites. But Congress made a major reallocation, moving $643 million from a program known as Evolved Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) to a new missile-warning satellite program called Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR).

The shift came as a surprise. The Air Force developed SBIRS to serve as the “unblinking eye” for ballistic missile warning and defense for the U.S. and its allies. The SBIRS constellation has four satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit and two hosted payloads in highly elliptical orbit. Two satellites — GEO-5 and GEO-6 — currently in production by Lockheed Martin, will replace GEO-1 and GEO-2 in 2021 and 2022. The Air Force was planning to buy GEO-7 and GEO-8 but abruptly changed course in February — after consulting and getting agreement from lawmakers — in order to put the program on an accelerated schedule.

The Air Force in May announced a $2.9 billion sole-source contract award to Lockheed Martin to produce three geosynchronous next-generation OPIR satellites, and a $47 million award to Northrop Grumman to begin the design of the polar satellites. Officials said the next-gen OPIR will deliver a constellation by 2025, four years earlier than the original plan for Evolved SBIRS.

Lockheed Martin selected Raytheon and a Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace team to compete for the mission payloads of the next-gen OPIR Block 0 missile warning satellites.

Not funded in the 2019 budget is a new missile-defense constellation of sensors to protect the U.S. and allies from hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia. Senior officials including Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten have warned that these advanced missiles — capable of flying at several times the speed of sound on unpredictable trajectories — cannot be detected with ground radars and that a space-based tracking system is required.

Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Missile Defense Agency to start designing a space-based sensor architecture for missile defense. Griffin said DoD would seek funding in the 2020 budget for development and prototyping of a space sensor layer.

Command and control

Congress appropriated $835 million for space command and control (C2). In space programs, C2 are the systems that enable commanders to plan, direct and control operations.

Some of the funds pay for software and hardware upgrades for the Combined Space Operations Center (formerly known as the Joint Space Operations Center) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This is where U.S. military, allies and commercial and civil partners cooperate on space efforts.

Also funded in 2019 is the Enterprise Space Battle Management Command and Control program that seeks to integrate data for operational commanders, and the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System — a modernized hardware and software system that will provide real-time integrated space situational awareness. The JSpOC Mission System Increment 2 ran into troubles in 2016 and the Air Force decided to terminate a portion of the program and divided up the rest between the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System program and the Enterprise Service Battle Management Command and Control program. C2 systems are becoming increasingly important as the military steps up development of space warfighting concepts and tactics.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act criticized the Air Force for lagging in the procurement of commercial software for C2 applications and for space situational awareness. The Air Force is developing an overarching vision, called Enterprise Ground Service, to transition existing telemetry, tracking and command software to a common infrastructure that is run on commercial software.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...