U.S. Space Force gets its first budget in name only

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When the U.S. Air Force’s top budget officer rolled out President Trump’s 2021 funding request for the U.S. Space Force earlier this month, he called it a historic moment.

The proposed $15.4 billion budget is the “first-ever separate budget requested for the recently established United States Space Force,” Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters during a Feb. 10 briefing at the Pentagon.

But then he made it clear that the Trump administration was not proposing to add $15.4 billion to the Pentagon’s budget to fund the Space Force and was simply transferring the money from existing space programs and activities that up until now had been funded and performed by the Air Force.

“It’s important to remember one thing: In the FY20 and previous budgets, all of our space funding was in the Air Force appropriations,” said Pletcher.

Pletcher noted that the $15.4 billion request would give the Space Force $900 million more than what Congress appropriated last year for Air Force space operations and investments.

The Space Force was established Dec. 20 as a separate branch of the armed forces under the Department of the Air Force, the same way the Marine Corps resides in the Department of the Navy.

That the Space Force’s first budget is essentially a renaming of the Air Force space budget should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with how the DoD bureaucracy works. It takes at least a year or longer for the military services to develop their funding requests and for these budgets to get through several rounds of red tape.

Nevertheless, the chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, said the Space Force request is not just a rebranded Air Force space budget.

General John Raymond, U.S. Space Force chief of space operations, signs the United States Space Command sign inside of the Perimeter Acquisition Radar building Jan. 10, 2020, on Cavalier Air Force Station, North Dakota. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Melody Howley

In an interview with SpaceNews the day of the Pentagon’s budget rollout, Raymond pointed out that he had a strong say in the Space Force budget both as commander of U.S. Space Command and chief of the Space Force. “The mechanics of this budget was such that the money was still in the Air Force because we hadn’t stood up the Space Force yet,” Raymond said. “But we shaped this budget.”

That said, the Space Force has a way to go before it can operate as an independent service.

A key challenge for the Space Force in the coming year will be to start populating its ranks. That will require the voluntary transfer of up to 16,000 Air Force personnel who worked under Air Force Space Command before it was formally redesignated Space Force with the enactment of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Raymond right now is the only officer who wears a military camouflage uniform with the official “U.S. SPACE FORCE” name plate on it. Raymond’s Pentagon staff and all personnel supporting Space Force field operations in California, Colorado, Florida and elsewhere are Air Force civilians and uniformed airmen who have been detailed to the Space Force.

The $15.4 billion Space Force budget does not include any personnel costs because the service does not yet have its own personnel accounting system or its own personnel, since everyone except Raymond is a detailee from the Air Force.

“We anticipate transitioning the military personnel funding in a future budget, once we can assure a seamless transition of pay for our space professionals,” said Pletcher.

Another looming question is whether future Space Force budgets will be mostly continuations of Air Force programs or will incorporate any Army or Navy space programs.

Budget analyst Mike Tierney from the Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm Velos, told SpaceNews that there are widespread concerns on Capitol Hill about how DoD plans to consolidate military space investments under the Space Force.

For now, the Army and the Navy will continue to fund their space programs separately, he said. But he noted that bringing space capabilities from the other branches into the Space Force will be important as the new service develops its own identity.

Pletcher said that should happen over time. “We’ll continue to work with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the other services to align and unify DoD space activities into the Space Force,” he said. “In future budgets, space efforts from other military services will consolidate under the Space Force.”

And then there is the Space Development Agency, a year-old organization that resides in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and is not currently part of the Space Force.

The SDA was created to develop and field next-generation space systems faster and cheaper than traditional military procurements. The agency plans to design and deploy large constellations of low-cost satellites in low Earth orbit to detect and track missiles, and help military commanders find targets on the battlefield.

The Pentagon’s 2021 budget includes $48 million for SDA operations and $288 million for SDA technology projects. According to long-term projections, the SDA will seek much larger budgets starting in 2022 to start building constellations.

“People on the Hill are asking why they didn’t put the SDA money in the Space Force budget,” said Tierney. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires that the SDA move under the Space Force no later than 2022. But for now, the Pentagon is requesting hundreds of millions of dollars for space projects that aren’t under the Space Force. He said DoD leaders will be asked to explain to Congress why it makes sense to fund SDA programs separately as the agency transitions to the Space Force.

The Space Force budget the administration submitted Feb. 10, like all funding requests sent to Congress, is just an opening bid.

“We will use that as a starting point,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Feb. 11. “The House and Senate will definitely put their own stamp” on it.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.