Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

<i>Financial Investment</i>

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Nancy W. Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

One way to assess how far the United States might actually go toward realizing its ambitions for military space dominance is to examine budget documents. The rapid rise in U.S. military space spending reflects a general intention to acquire as rapidly as possible the capabilities outlined in the SPACECOM planning documents, but informed observers will inquire as to which programs are absorbing the bulk of the money, how much progress the United States is actually making, and whether the projected rate of spending is likely to provide the desired capabilities on the projected schedule.

None of these questions is easy to answer because the DOD has neither a unified budget nor a consistent method of tracking military space spending. The Air Force is the lead agency for military space, but other services have their own space projects. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Office (DARPA), and the NRO also have significant national security–related space budgets. The figure most commonly cited for U.S. military space spending reflects those classified and unclassified budget lines that the Pentagon has chosen to aggregate into a “virtual” Major Force Program (vMFP). This accounting device provides a rough indicator of trends over time, but it might underestimate by half the total U.S. government spending on space for national security. For example, DOD’s fiscal year (FY) 2005 request for items in its space vMFP was $21.7 billion, but whether this includes budget requests for the NRO and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which totaled $9.5 billion that year, is not public knowledge.127 Space vMFP does not include MDA spending, however, and the MDA request for FY2005 was $9 billion, an unknown portion of which was for space-related activity.128

Figure 2 shows the past, present, and future rate of U.S. military space spending on items in the vMFP in real-year dollars. The figures for FY1959 through FY2004 are the budget authority appropriated by Congress. FY2005 and FY2006 show both the president’s request and the congressional appropriation. Projected requests for FY2007–FY2009 were provided in 2004 by DOD’s Office of the Comptroller to Marcia Smith of the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Since then, DOD has become more reluctant to provide aggregate information about spending on programs in the space vMFP. DOD did not provide updated projections for the November 2005 CRS space programs report and has been unwilling since then to provide CRS with the total amount of money that the administration requested and that Congress actually appropriated for programs in the space vMFP, although information shared with allies suggests that the actual FY2008 request was close to the projected request for that year. Thus, efforts to understand overall patterns in U.S. military space spending currently are constrained to using data from the FY2006 request and before, although some information about individual programs can still be extracted from subsequent budget cycles.

Figure 2: U.S. military space spending, 1950–2009 (in billions of unadjusted dollars by fiscal year)

Figure 2

Source: 2004 Aeronautics and Space Report of the President, submitted to Congress by NASA, Appendix

D-1A, p. 119 and Marcia Smith, U.S. Space Programs: Civilian Military and Commercial, CRS Issue Brief#IB92011 (October 21, 2004): 8–9.

The Bush administration’s emphasis on space as a critical enabler of defense transformation and the coercive prevention strategy has been reflect- ed in its budget priorities. The rate of increase during the current administration has been comparable to the sharp rise during the Reagan years; however, the starting point (i.e., the level of military space spending in the previous administration) was much higher in the current administration. If budget authority is adjusted for inflation, then the 2004 figure of $20 billion dollars would be comparable to military space spending in 1985 and the projected requests for 2008 and 2009 would surpass the Reagan-era peak of $25.6 billion in 1988.129 If space-related spending in the intelligence and missile defense budgets was included in the Reagan-era calculations for DOD spending on space but is not part of the space vMFP now, then the actual rate of spending on military space activities could be approximately twice as much as it was during the Reagan years. Twenty to forty billion dollars in annual military space spending might seem small when the overall U.S. defense budget is well over six hundred billion dollars (including supplemental spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), but that amount is huge compared with the space spending of all other countries and in inflation-adjusted dollars would be at the upper limit of Congress was willing to support during the Reagan military space build-up.130

DOD does not identify all the budget lines included in the space vMFP, so external (and many internal) observers cannot determine precisely how the money is allocated among different types of acquisition efforts and operation of existing space capabilities. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the FY2006 military space spending request for $22.6 billion and identi- fied about $7 billion that it considered funding for the development and acquisition of major unclassified space systems.131 The CBO analysis excluded systems that are managed by the NRO, whose space systems are highly classified and whose annual budget is reportedly another $5–7 billion.132 How much additional money for highly classified work is included in the vMFP is unclear, although classified military spending on space is probably rising at about the same rate as overall military space spending.133 The rest of the money in the space vMFP is for minor development programs and for the operation and support of existing space systems.

The CBO’s inflation-adjusted analysis in Figure 3 shows that the rate of investment in new military space capabilities grew faster than the overall rate of military space spending in both the Reagan years and the Bush administration, with current plans for annual investment in new space capabilities peaking well above Reagan-era figures. The FY2006 request represented a 40 per- cent increase over FY2005 budget authority for these programs, with investment growing from 22 percent of DOD’s total space budget in 2005 to 31 percent in its FY2006 request.134 The CBO’s “risk of cost growth” line reflects the fact that research, development, testing, and evaluation costs for DOD’s space systems historically have grown by 69 percent from the original development estimates, while procurement costs have risen by an average of 19 percent.

Figure 3: U.S. Investment in Major Unclassified Military Space Programs (in millions of 2006 dollars)

Figure 3

Source: Congressional Budget Office based on data from the Department of Defense

Notes: FYDP 2006 Future Years Defense Program; MILSATCOM = military satellite communications; ISR intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The vast majority of the $6.9 billion requested for FY2006 investment in major unclassified military space programs was for space support and force enhancement missions, not for space control or force application. Space- based communications received the largest share (approximately $2.7 billion), followed by space launch ($1.7 billion). ISR received $1 billion, including the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and space radar but excluding NRO programs. Navigation received $0.6 billion and weather received $0.4 billion. For FY2006, “other space support” totaled $0.24 billion, force application totaled $0.03 billion, and space control totaled $0.2 billion. All other unclassified military spending on space weapons fell below the CBO’s threshold of significance.

Most of the money tracked in the CBO report was being spent on projects begun during the Clinton administration, including several communications upgrades, SBIRS-High, GPS improvements, and the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). Current funding for the two programs that exemplify SPACECOM’s transformational aspirations for the force enhancement mission, TSAT and space radar, was relatively low: Congress appropriated only $429.2 million for TSAT and $98.3 million for space radar in FY2006. The CBO report estimated, however, that these two programs could grow to consume almost one-third of all investment in major unclassified space systems and up to 5 percent of the Air Force’s total investment funding if the United States continues on its current trajectory.135

Judging from the public record, the United States is not acquiring new space-based force enhancement capabilities and integrating them into terrestrial warfighting operations as fast or as fully as one might expect given the high rate of spending. Most of the major space acquisition projects are seriously behind schedule and over budget, raising concerns that some U.S. capabilities will actually decline if new satellites cannot be launched before the old ones stop working. For example, the NRO started planning in the mid-1990s to replace its handful of electro-optical and radar satellites with a Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) using a larger number of lighter, more capable electro-optical and radar satellites to watch more of the Earth at one time, to revisit locations of interest more often, to see through clouds, and to integrate the satellite data with other intelligence information. Unclassified information is scarce, but the program appears to have been officially terminated in 2005 after billions of dollars had already been spent but Boeing had delivered no new satellites and projected cost estimates had ballooned from $5 billion to as high as $18 billion. Lockheed Martin was then asked to resume production of an updated version of the old optical satellite that Boeing had promised to replace with a much more advanced version, but in late 2006, an experimental Lockheed Martin imagery satellite (NROL-21, also known as USA-193) failed to communicate with ground controllers after reaching orbit, and the delivery date for the first updated Lockheed model has slipped to 2009.136 The intelligence community is trying to save fuel and extend the lifetime of its few on-orbit classified satellites by using commercial optical imagery, but at least one of the 1990s radar satellites has passed the end of its service lifetime, and no commercial substitute exists for radar imagery. Rather than having an unblinking eye in the sky, the NRO is more likely to be watching from space with one eye closed for the next few years.137

Nearly all of the military space acquisition programs have experienced at least one Nunn-McCurdy Amendment violation—that is, cost overruns have exceeded the baseline cost by at least 15 percent. The SBIRS program to provide information for missile warning, missile defense, and battlespace characterization is the most egregious public example. Since its inception in 1994, the SBIRS-High program has experienced four Nunn-McCurdy breaches; projected cost has soared from $2 billion to $10 billion; the number of planned satellites have been reduced; its detection and data-processing technologies are no longer state-of-the-art; the launch date for the first GEO satellite has slipped until late 2009 or 2010; software and hardware problems persist; and a spacecraft with similar design features failed in testing.138 The first SBIRS sensor hosted by a classified satellite in highly elliptical orbit was declared operational in November 2006, but the United States must still primarily rely on Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites first launched in the 1970s to watch for missile launches. The last available DSP satellite was launched in November 2007, exacerbating concerns that U.S. missile warning capability could deteriorate if the SBIRS schedule continues to slip.139

The military has a mixed record on making fuller use of existing space based assets to support ongoing operations. Defense analysts cite the rapid growth of satellite communications bandwidth used in recent wars as evidence that the U.S. military is becoming steadily more space-enabled. The Defense Information Systems Agency provided forty times the bandwidth to 40 percent fewer troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom compared with Operation Desert Storm, with communications satellites being the most reliable way to pass large amounts of information to dispersed forces. Yet, network- centric concepts of warfare are so information-intensive that this huge increase in bandwidth was deemed woefully inadequate.140 Moreover, commercial firms, including Iridium, provided 80 percent of the satellite communications bandwidth used during Operation Iraqi Freedom compared with 20–30 percent in the early 1990s, partly due to delays in upgrading the military’s own space-based communications systems.141

A mostly classified RAND report on the initial phase of the Iraq war found a space-based digital divide. Commanders at headquarters in Qatar and Kuwait had a remarkably clear picture of the location and movements of friendly units (via the Blue Force Tracker system) and of many Iraqi targets. Sometimes they received more information than they could process and had to turn off their airborne sensors. Frontline army commanders, on the other hand, had “terrible situational awareness”: mobile units outran communications relays; several units were attacked when they stopped to receive intelligence on enemy positions; and bandwidth and software problems often caused computers to freeze for hours at a time. Impressive achievements, such as the use of GPS-guided bombs to attack an Iraqi Republican Guard unit during a blinding sandstorm, coexisted with striking failures, as when a U.S. battalion commander approaching a key bridge on the road to Baghdad received no warning of an impending ambush by three sizeable Iraqi brigades closing in from different directions.142

Although force enhancement programs have been receiving most of the money and attention, several independent analysts have been trying to track current spending on research and development projects related to the space control and force application missions.143 These analysts, in attempting to match SPACECOM’s aspirations with specific funding requests in DOD’s five- year defense program budget (FY2006–FY2009), found little evidence of a coherent spending plan to implement the space warfighting strategy. Instead, small amounts of money were being used to create a “technological sandbox” in which scientists could do basic research into a wide array of concepts that might someday lead to miniature propulsion units for microsatellites, directed-energy weapons, reusable space planes, and other futuristic systems.144 Little or no money was being spent for ground- or air-launched anti-satellite capabilities that could be acquired relatively quickly. Instead, the emphasis was on ambitious projects that were a decade or more away from completion. Unclassified spending on anti-satellite weapons, space-based missile defense interceptors, and space-based strike weapons totaled less than $300 million in the FY2006 request, suggesting that Bush administration support for these programs was more rhetorical than real.145

Even in their embryonic form, however, certain projects could undercut the existing rules and restraints on military space activities without providing more reliable unilateral protection for U.S. space assets. In fall 2004, the United States deployed its first dedicated ground-based system to disrupt other countries’ access to satellite communications. These jammers interfere with the radio-frequency links between satellites and receivers, not with the satellites themselves. Nevertheless, they raise important legal questions about disrupting others’ freedom to use space in the same ways that the United States does (OST, article 1), especially if the interference affects not only a belligerent state but also neutral parties using signals from the same satellite. The Air Force defines these jammers as counterspace weapons and has depicted Iraq’s use of similar GPS jammers as evidence that space warfare is already occurring. That interpretation undermines the traditional barrier between military support and direct weapons use.

Recent budget requests have also contained money for several “Autonomous Proximity Operations” involving microsatellites that can maneuver close to other satellites and perform missions such as in-orbit repairs and refueling a satellite to extend its service life. The Experimental Satellite System (XSS) program has launched several satellites to demonstrate close-proximity inspection operations. While these are not dedicated anti- satellite weapons, they could be used in that mode. The XSS is the successor to the Clementine 2 Asteroid Intercept Demonstrator that President Clinton line-item vetoed in 1997 and that an Air Force study recommended be revived for possible use as an ASAT weapon.146 International suspicion is likely to grow if such dual-use technology continues to be developed without transparency measures and explicit rules for legitimate use.147

The budget documents also provide information about a largely secret Air Force project to develop a ground-based anti-satellite laser that would use advances in optical technology to compensate for atmospheric turbulence, enabling concentrated beams of light to destroy targets in space. The telescopes at the Starfire Optical Range have been using adaptive optics on incoming light to improve the telescopes’ ability to image satellites and identify small objects in orbit. The FY2007 budget request, however, included the use of adaptive optics on outgoing light to “demonstrate fully compensated laser propagation to low earth orbit satellites” for purposes including anti-satellite operations.148 Congress raised questions, so the FY2008 budget documents emphasize the project’s utility for space surveillance and no longer men- tion ASAT uses. Although potential weapons applications are said to be “years and years and years into the future,” funding these near-term experiments under any justification moves the United States further in that direction.149

Two missile defense projects could soon cross the normative threshold against space weapons. In August 2007, MDA used a Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite to collect images of a boosting U.S. rocket. An earlier plan for this first NFIRE experiment included firing a small sensor- equipped projectile (similar to “kill vehicles” used in other missile defense tests) down from the observation satellite to get a close look at the test missile.150 After MDA acknowledged that the projectile might hit the test missile, congressional pressure caused MDA to drop that part of the experiment, but other members of Congress want MDA to restore the kill vehicle in a second round of NFIRE experiments.151

MDA has also made it increasingly difficult to determine the status of efforts to develop space-based missile defense interceptors. For years, the MDA claimed that no decision had been made about a space-based layer in a future missile defense system and that no money was currently being spent on tests in space. Yet, the FY2006 budget request called the space test bed “an essential element of our BMDS acquisition plan” and requested $673 million through FY2011 to prepare for a series of space-based interceptor tests.152 The FY2007 budget request included funding for several microsatellite experiments that were related to space-based missile defense and anti-satellite weapons. One experiment was described as using microsatellites to provide three-dimensional tracking information, one as using propulsion systems to guide maneuverable satellites, and one as developing cooperative targets for missile defense (or anti-satellite) tests. All three experiments would be logical candidates for a space test bed.153 In the unclassified part of the FY2008 budget request, MDA included only $10 million to begin work on the space test bed itself (down from the $45 million that MDA had said it would request for the space test bed in FY2008) and projected a total request of only $290 mil- lion through FY2013.154 Congress zeroed out the space test bed request in the FY2008 budget request, but because classified spending on missile defense has increased significantly in recent years and because MDA has not announced that it will scale back or slow down its plans to develop a space-based layer for missile defense, MDA might have responded to congressional opposition by moving work on the space test bed into the black budget.155

The FY2008 defense appropriations bill also includes $100 million for a revised version of the FALCON program as a potential “prompt global strike” alternative to using nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles with new conventional warheads. This version of the space bomber concept involves a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle (HCV) that could strike targets up to 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours. The HCV would not be stationed in orbit but would be launched into space on a small rocket when an attack was ordered, then would fly above national air- space to its target (obviating the need for overflight permission), deliver its payload, and return to the United States. This project, too, is in the early stages of what DOD envisions as a two-decade development process. Therefore, the main use for the current money will be to help develop small rockets that could be launched on short notice for a variety of different purposes.156

In general, the Bush administration has been trying to spend as much money as Congress will allow on acquiring new military space capabilities, with annual requests that continue to rise despite congressional pressure for cost reductions and reallocations. So far, however, increased spending has not been matched by comparable advances in capabilities. Growing budget scrutiny and cost constraints have stimulated debate about whether the United States should devote even more of its military space acquisition budget to completing Clinton-era upgrades or whether it should leapfrog over next-generation satellites and invest more heavily in research on transformational systems that are at least a decade from deployment. The more fundamental question is whether a sustained commitment to either the incremental or the revolutionary acquisition route could reasonably be expected to reach the full SPACECOM vision. The experience of the past five years suggests that no matter how hard the Bush administration or subsequent U.S. leaders try, the costs and technical challenges of—not to mention other countries’ probable military reactions to—unilateral space security will keep total dominance out of reach.


127. Some sources assume that the NRO and NGA budgets are included in the space vMFP, while others assume they are not, which might reflect the fact the space vMFP categorization has not been consistent over time. Repeated efforts to get a definitive answer from DOD or from government research offices that track the space budget have been unsuccessful.

128. On the difficulties of tracking U.S. military space spending using the vMFP figures, see Marcia Smith, "U.S. Space Programs: Civilian, Military, and Commercial," CRS Issue Brief, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2005, CRS-10; and Space Foundation, The Space Report 2006: The Guide to Global Space Activity (Colorado Springs, CO: Space Foundation, 2006), 73–75.

129. See Appendix D-1A (DOD spending in real-year dollars) and Appendix D-1B (DOD spending in inflation-adjusted dollars) in Aeronautics and Space Report of the President, 101–102.

130. The U.S. government spends at least four times more on space than all other governments combined. The disparity on military space budgets is even starker, with some analysts estimating U.S. military space spending at 95 percent of the world's total (assuming that NRO and NGA are not included in the vMFP number). Precise comparisons are impossible, though, because many countries include some dual-use programs in their civilian space budgets. See Space Foundation, The Space Report 2006, 75.

131. Congressional Budget Office (CBO), The Long-Term Implications of Current Plans for Investment in Major Unclassified Military Space Programs, 2005, docs/66xx/doc6637/09-12-militaryspace.pdf. The CBO defines unclassified space programs as those with content that is not highly classified.

132. Michael Fabey, "Spy Sats Seek Relevance in War on Terror," Defense News (April 3,2006): 8.

133. An analysis of three million contract and modification records from 2000 to 2004 found that the number of classified contracts mirrored the overall rise in space and satellite work for the first three years, but the classified/unclassified breakdown for 2004 was not available.Michael Fabey, “Pentagon Is Opaque about Satellite Funding,” Defense News, February 13, 2006, 8.

134. CBO, Long-Term Implications, 1.

135. CBO, Long-Term Implications, 2. This CBO report projected that the space segment of space radar would cost $19 billion through 2024 based on the rough calculation that the total weight of nine satellites would be about 7,000 pounds at a cost of $70,000 per pound. A subsequent CBO report used much more detailed calculations to conclude that the cost of a basic space radar system could range from $25 to $90 billion, potentially swamping all the rest of the programs in the military space acquisition budget.

136. Philip Taubman, "In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids," New York Times, November 11, 2007, 1.

137. Jeffrey T. Richelson, "The Satellite Gap," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January/February

2003): 48–54.

138. The SBIRS program has repeatedly been restructured, with the current plan being to purchase three dedicated SBIRS satellites instead of the original five. DOD initiated a parallel effort by a different set of defense contractors to develop an alternative infrared sensor technology to compete with and potentially replace SBIRS, but that project has run into comparable problems. While the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicts further delays and cost increases on SBIRS, the Secretary of Defense has directed the Air Force to maintain the current schedule even if that requires a greater reduction in the capability of SBIRS. See GAO, Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs (Washington, DC: GAO, 2007), 123–124,; and GAO, "Space Based Infrared System High Program and its Alternative," Report No.1088R, August 31, 2007,

139. Jeremy Singer, "SBIRS Report to Include Update on Health of Defense Support Program," Space News, December 8, 2004, news/archive04/sbirsarch_121604.html; and Andy Pasztor, "U.S.'s Lofty Plans for Smart Satellites Fall Back to Earth," Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2006.

140. Gopal Ratnam, "Bandwidth Battle," Defense News, October 9, 2006, 35–40.

141. Warren Fester, "War Bonanza for Satellites: Military Bandwidth Demand Energizes Slow Market," Defense News, September 1, 2003, 31.

142. Findings from the RAND report are described in David Talbot, "How Technology Failed in Iraq," Technology Review, November 2004, read_article.aspx?id=13893&ch=infotech.

143. For analyses of space weapons in the FY2004–FY2008 budget requests, see Jeffrey Lewis, "Lift-Off for Space Weapons: Implications of the Department of Defense's 2004 Budget Request for Space Weaponization," CISSM working paper, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, July 2003, spaceweapons.pdf; Jeffrey Lewis and Jessy Cowan, "Space Weapon Related Programs in the FY 2005 Budget Request," Center for Defense Information (CDI), March 2004,; Theresa Hitchens, Michael Katz-Hyman, and Jeffrey Lewis, "U.S. Space Weapons: Big Intentions, Little Focus," Nonproliferation Review 13, no. 1 (March 2006): 35–56; Theresa Hitchens, Michael Katz-Hyman, and Victoria Samson, "Space Weapons Spending in the FY 2007 Defense Budget," CDI and Henry L Stimson Center, March 2006,; and Theresa Hitchens, Victoria Samson, and Sam Black, "Space Weapons Spending in the FY 2008 Defense Budget," CDI, February 2007,

144. The phrase "technological sandbox" comes from an interview with Richard Garwin in the documentary film Arming the Heavens: The Push for Space Weapons (Washington, DC: Azimuth Media, 2004).

145. Hitchens, Katz-Hyman, and Lewis, "U.S. Space Weapons," 48.

146. The FY2008 budget request included $28.9 million for the XSS program under the "integrated space technology demonstrations" budget line. An advertisement for the "Escort" inspection microsatellite trumpeted its anti-satellite applications, declaring that the Escort would be able to "monitor space around a large satellite to detect attacks, stealthily inspect and monitor a large satellite to determine its capabilities, stealthily attack to permanently or temporarily disable a large satellite, [and] actively defend a large satellite against attacks by microsatellites." See Hitchens, Katz-Hyman, and Lewis, "U.S. Space Weapons," 39–40. The Escort advertisement can be seen at

147. Spacecraft capable of automated rendezvous and docking, such as the Russian Progress resupply vehicle, constitute another dual-use capability that could raise ASAT concerns if the space security environment became more precarious.

148. Quoted in William J. Broad, "Administration Conducting Research into Laser Weapons," New York Times, May 3, 2006.

149. Senior Pentagon official quoted in Broad, "Administration Conducting Research into Laser Weapons."

150. Jeremy Singer, "Experimental Missile Defense Satellite Delayed 1 Year," Space News, July 7, 2004.

151. When the kill vehicle was removed from the observation satellite, its spot was filled with a German laser communications payload that could also provide information for missile defense. The 2006 Defense Appropriations Act included language that encouraged MDA to restore the kill vehicle, but it would take at least two years to complete the kill vehicle and integrate it into an NFIRE satellite. See Jeremy Singer, "STSS Satellites Could Benefit from NFIRE Demo," Space News, April 6, 2006.

152. Quoted in Sam Black, "Evolution of the Space Test Bed," CDI, March 2007,

153. Hitchens, Katz-Hyman, and Samson, "Space Weapons Spending in the FY 2007 Defense Budget."

154. Hitchens, Samson, and Black, "Space Weapons Spending in the FY 2008 Defense Budget."

155. Black, "Evolution of the Space Test Bed."

156. Walter Pincus, "Space Bomber Program Gets Extra Funding," Washington Post, November 12, 2007.