Military/National Security Space Activities

Military/National Security Space Activities


The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act specified that U.S. military space activities would be conducted by the Department of Defense (DOD), while creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct the nation’s civil space program.

Today, the term “national security space” is used to encompass the space activities of the intelligence community as well as DOD. National security space programs include launch vehicles and satellite systems for reconnaissance, early warning of missile launches and nuclear detonations, navigation, communications, and weather. Many of these systems have counterparts in the civil and commercial sectors; the line between national security and civil space systems can be quite blurry. For example, the Global Positioning System (GPS) of navigation satellites is a DOD system, but it enables pervasive civil and commercial applications from precision farming to cell phones to automobile navigation systems.

Although NASA conducts a much more visible space program, the national security pace program is thought to be larger in terms of funding. There is no easy way to track national security space funding, however, since “space” is not a specific item throughout DOD’s budget.  Also, a portion of the activities are classified (“black”) programs for which budgetary information is not available on an unclassified basis. The rest of the funding is for unclassified (“white”) programs, but is spread throughout the DOD budget in research, development, test & evaluation (RDT&E), operations and management (O&M), and procurement accounts for the three services and defense-wide activities, including missile defense. Only the procurement account has a “space”subaccount, although the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) created a Major Force Program 12 in its FY2018 budget request to more clearly delineate its funding for space activities.  Most space activities are funded through the Air Force budget, but the Navy, MDA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) budgets also fund important programs.

The annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President used to be the only way to track total national security space funding.  Tables in the appendices (“Space Activities of the U.S. Government”) show all federal spending in all agencies both in current and constant dollars. Older copies of the report traditionally showed about $20-25 billion for those programs. Beginning with the 2013 edition, however, the tables show only about half that amount for DOD. At first there was no explanation, but more recent editions have a footnote stating that the change is due to improvements in DOD’s estimating methodology.  A footnote to a different table, “Federal Space Activities Budget,” is more revealing. It states explicitly that funding for intelligence programs in DOD or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is excluded. The pre-2013 reports showed the funding for all national security space activities.  Consequently, there is no reliable way to know from unclassified sources how much is spent on the total national security space enterprise.  The total in the Aeronautics and Space Report of the President is only unclassified programs.

DOD’s unclassified space systems include the following programs, some of which are operational and others still in development or earlier phases:

  • Communications Satellites: Wide-Band Global Satcom (WGS), Milstar, Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), and Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS).
  • Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) satellites: Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Early Warning: Defense Support Program (DSP), Space Based Infrared Satellite System-High (SBIRS-High), Overhead Persistent InfraRed  (OPIR)
  • Weather: Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), Weather System Follow-on (replacing the Defense Weather Satellite System, which replaced DOD’s portion of the cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, NPOESS)
  • Ballistic Missile Defense-related: Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS, formerly SBIRS-Low)
  • Launch Vehicles: National Security Space Launch (formerly Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) including Delta, Atlas, Falcon and others.

DOD also has programs that address the needs for space situational awareness, space control, and operationally responsive space.

DOD’s management of its space activities have been criticized for many years and various reorganizations tried.  Historically, the Air Force served as DOD’s “Executive Agent” for space.   In October 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work created a new position of Principal DOD Space Adviser (PDSA) to be filled by the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF), but representing the broader national security space community. SecAF Deborah Lee James was the first PDSA.  She was succeeded in the Trump Administration as SecAF and PDSA by Heather Wilson.  Congress abolished the PDSA position in the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), however, as part of a broader effort to reorganize how DOD manages space activities.

Both the House and the Senate see U.S. space assets increasingly vulnerable to attack by adversaries including China and Russia.  In 2017, the House and Senate had very different solutions to reorganization that were considered as part of the debate over the FY2018 NDAA.  Although they agreed to abolish the PDSA position, agreement could not be reached on a broader reorganization.  The House wanted to create a Space Corps within the Air Force analogous to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy and the House-passed bill included that provisions.  By contrast, the Senate wanted to create a Chief Information Warfare Officer (CIWO) who would oversee space, cyberspace and information activities at DOD.  In the end, in section 1601 of the NDAA, they agreed to mandate a study of options by the Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) and another by an outside think tank.

Despite opposition from the Trump White House to the Space Corps idea that passed the House in 2017, in 2018 President Trump became a strong advocate of a “Space Force” as a separate service from the Air Force.  He first made his views known in March 2018 to the surprise of DOD and the Air Force officials who had been the strongest opponents of creating any new entity to manage DOD space programs.  However, Trump directed DOD to create a Space Force as a “separate but equal” sixth military service at a June 2018 meeting of the National Space Council.

Vice President Pence, who chairs the Space Council, released the “section 1601” report overseen by DepSecDef Patrick Shanahan in August 2018.  It called for creating a Space Force; a unified combatant command, U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM); and a Space Development Agency (SDA) to develop cutting edge space technologies.  Congressional authorization is needed for the Space Force. The President can create USSPACECOM and SDA on his own authority.  He initiated actions to create USSPACECOM in December 2018 and SDA was formally established in March 2019 in a memo signed by Shanahan, who is now Acting Secretary of Defense.

After several months of internal discussions, DOD and the White House decided to forego the concept of the Space Force as a sixth military department for now and instead proposed that it be part of the Air Force, in line with what the House passed in 2017.  The House called it a Space Corps, but now it is the Space Force.  Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 in February 2019 directing DOD to submit a proposal to Congress to create the Space Force.  Shanahan did so on March 1, 2019.  It is now up to Congress to decide what to do.


U.S. space policy, including national security space policy, was most recently enunciated by President Barack Obama in his National Space Policy, released on June 28, 2010. The Obama policy superseded the policy issued in 2006 by President George W. Bush.  The Trump Administration has not yet issued a new overarching space policy (though he did issue a strategy in 2018, as discussed below), so the Obama policy remains in effect.

In February 2011, DOD and the Director of National Intelligence issued a National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) to begin the implementation phase of those aspects of the Obama National Space Policy. In addition to the NSSS, three other documents were released:

NSSS Unclassified Fact Sheet
NSSS Briefing Slides
NSSS DOD Initiatives Fact Sheet

On March 23, 2018, President Trump released a National Space Strategy that covers national security, commercial and civil space activities.  A White House official told on March 24, 2018 that the national security space provisions of the Trump strategy replace the 2011 Obama-era National Security Space Strategy.  Trump also has signed four Space Policy Directives (SPDs).  Not all impact national security space activities, but they are listed here for completeness.

  • Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1), December 11, 2017, replaces two sentences of the 2010 National Space Policy regarding NASA’s human spaceflight program.  It directs NASA to return humans to the lunar surface as a steppingstone to human exploration of Mars instead of an asteroid as the Obama Administration planned.
  • National Space Strategy, March 23, 2018, states the strategy to implement national security, commercial and civil space policy.
  • Space Policy Directive-2, May 24, 2018, takes steps towards designating the Department of Commerce as the “one-stop shop” for commercial space regulations.
  • Space Policy Directive-3, June 18, 2018, establishes agency roles and responsibilities for space situational awareness and space traffic management.
  • Space Policy Directive-4, February 14, 2019, proposing establishment of a U.S. Space Force as part of the U.S. Air Force.


When the Obama White House released its overarching national space policy in June 2010, it stated that it would release additional specific space policies  on other topics as previous Presidents have done. Other space policies that were promulated during President George W. Bush’s administration related to national security space were:

On November 21, 2013, President Obama released an update of the Space Transportation Policy.  The updated policy and an associated fact sheet are at the following links:

Obama did not release updated versions of the other policies.


The Government Accountability Office (GAO) publishes a number of reports about national security space programs and routinely testifies to congressional committees about related issues. For a list of its most recent reports and testimony, go to our Government Accountability Office page.

Also on our home page is a link to “Other Reports of Interest” that may be helpful.

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