WASHINGTON — Pentagon funding for space programs will grow in the coming years as the U.S. military increasingly relies on satellites to conduct operations, the Defense Department’s comptroller Mike McCord said March 9. 

“Space is probably emerging in our internal reviews as the most important foundational area for everything that we are doing and everything that we need to be doing,” McCord said at the McAleese & Associates’ annual defense programs conference. 

DoD has not yet released its funding request for fiscal year 2023 so McCord could not discuss specifics. During a wide-ranging talk on the military’s budget priorities, he noted that DoD is making space capabilities a higher priority “whether it’s versus China, versus Russia or anybody else.”

Military space assets like satellites and ground systems typically have been considered “support” equipment that provide valuable services such as communications, navigation data and early warning of missile launches. But as the Pentagon has grown more dependent on space, satellites are becoming strategic assets and coveted targets for adversaries.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, also speaking at the McAleese conference, said the 2023 budget is “starting down the path to more resilient space capabilities.” 

The concern is that satellites need to “fight through” during a conflict if they come under attack, he said. “We have to do something about that.”

He said there is a growing wish list of space technologies that the military cannot afford. “There’s a large unfunded requirement for the future of space.” It will likely take several years to identify the specific requirements and secure funding, he said. “We have a long way to go … and there’s a bill coming. I do see tough choices ahead as we define the things we need.”

If more money were available, Kendall said, he would recommend buying additional missile-warning and missile-tracking satellites to deal with the threats of advanced ballistic and cruise missiles. 

Despite speculation to the contrary, a military presence on the moon is not on the priority list, Kendall said. There are more pressing concerns in Earth’s orbit, he added. “We’ve got big issues in LEO, MEO, GEO.” Going to the moon is obviously a NASA goal but “I don’t see a lot of interest from a defense perspective.”

2022 budget deal boosts defense spending

A bipartisan $1.5 trillion budget deal announced March 8 by congressional leaders — which funds the federal government for the 2022 fiscal year that began Oct. 1 — includes $782 billion in defense funding, a $42 billion increase over fiscal year 2021. The omnibus package also provides $13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine and Eastern European countries. 

The House passed the package of 12 appropriations bill late Wednesday. Congressional leaders are prepared to pass a continuing resolution to extend funding until March 15 to give the Senate time to vote on the omnibus.

The deal increases funding for U.S. Space Force and Space Development Agency programs above what the Biden administration requested.

The Space Force procurement account grows from $2.7 billion to $3 billion, and the research-and-development account from $11.2 billion to $11.6 billion. 

Lawmakers inserted $260 million for a new GPS satellite that the Space Force did not request. 

Small launch gets big plus-up

Small launch services provided by companies like Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and others increase by $70 million in the omnibus funding bill. 

The Rocket Systems Launch Program run by the U.S. Space Force to acquire launch services on small vehicles was upped from $10.4 million to $30.4 million. A separate $50 million was added for Tactically Responsive Launch, a program that Congress has directed DoD to establish but the Pentagon did not fund in 2022.

“The fiscal year 2022 President’s budget request does not include any resources to establish the program this fiscal year despite a need to counter adversarial launches of disruptive technologies in a tactically relevant timeline,” the bill says. 

“Therefore, the agreement provides $50 million for Tactically Responsive Launch efforts. Further, the agreement directs the Secretary of the Air Force, in consultation with the Chief of Space Operations, not later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act, to provide the congressional defense committees with an acquisition strategy that operationalizes a tactically responsive space capability, including satellites, launch vehicles, control systems, and concept of operations.”

More money for SDA’s missile-tracking satellites

The omnibus bill adds $550 million to the Space Development Agency’s budget for medium field of view sensor satellites that would be used in the Indo-Pacific region to detect and track missiles.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had recommended adding $750 million in response to a need from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command for wide and medium field of view satellites. The House did not provide any funding and the compromise was $550 million for a “satellite demonstration for U.S. Indo-Pacom, to be managed and executed only by the Space Development Agency.” 

Office of Space Commerce 

The omnibus spending bill provides $16 million for the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce, which is $6 million above the fiscal year 2021 level. 

Funding for the OSC has been an issue of concern for the space industry and for DoD as the office is supposed to take over space traffic management responsibilities. Congress in 2020 mandated a study from the National Academy of Public Administration to look at the space traffic management organization. The study re-affirmed the Trump administration’s decision to place this function under the OSC but there are still disagreements on whether the office should be moved from under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Satellite and Information Service to a higher rank within the Commerce Department. 

“NOAA is directed to advance space traffic management and space situational awareness capabilities, in collaboration with industry and Federal partners,” the omnibus bill says. “No later than 45 days after enactment of this Act, NOAA shall provide the Committees with a detailed spending plan for the funds provided to OSC. Further, no later than 90 days after enactment of this Act, NOAA shall provide the Committees a five-year strategic plan for OSC to achieve full operational capability.”

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...