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 space program is thought to be larger in terms of funding. There is no easy way to track national security space funding since a substantial portion of the activities are classified (“black”) programs at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for which budgetary information is not available to the public.

Funding for unclassified (“white”) programs is easier to track now than in the past.  A Major Force Program for national security space, Program 12 (MFP-12), was created in response to congressional direction in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act helped keep track of some space spending. Creation of the U.S. Space Force as part of the U.S. Air Force in December 2019 made it even easier.  For FY2021, the first year funding is being requested for the Space Force, it is $15.4 billion out of a total unclassified DOD space budget of $18 billion.

For prior years, the annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President was 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.  Thus, there is no reliable way to know how much has been spent on national security space throughout the entirety of the space program.

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), Next Generation 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), Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS)
  • Launch Vehicles: National Security Space Launch (NSSL, formerly Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles or EELV) including Delta, Atlas, Falcon and others in development.

DOD also has programs that address the needs for space situational awareness (or space domain awareness), space control and counterspace capabilities, and operationally responsive space.

Traditionally DOD has relied on a limited number of large, expensive satellites to fulfill its needs, but they pose high profile targets for adversaries.  The notion of using groups (“constellations’) of many small satellites that collectively meet the need but are more difficult to defeat gained traction in the 2000s.  Once referred to as a “disaggregated” architecture, more recently “proliferated”  is the term that is used.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the new Space Development Agency (SDA) are working on such groups of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) that are called pLEO for “proliferated LEO” constellations.


DOD’s management of its space activities has 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 provision.  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 department 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 department 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 then-Deputy Secretary of Defense 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.

USSPACECOM existed from 1985-2002, but was abolished as part of a reorganization of the unified combatant commands following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The President had authority to reestablish USSPACECOM and create SDA on his own.  USSPACECOM was formally reestablished on August 29, 2019 under the command of Air Force General John “Jay” Raymond, who was also serving as commander of Air Force Space Command.  SDA was formally established in March 2019 in a memo signed by Shanahan at a time when he was Acting Secretary of Defense.

Creating a U.S. Space Force, however, required congressional authorization.  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 a sixth military service under the Air Force.  That is similar to the Marine Corps, which is part of the Department of the Navy, and the same as 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.

The final FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law (P.L. 116-92) by President Trump on December 20, 2019, created the Space Force as a sixth military service as part of the Air Force.  It essentially renamed Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) as the Space Force.  General Jay Raymond is now “Chief of Space Operations” rather than Commander of AFSPC.  He  continues to be dual-hatted as Commander of U.S. Space Command.  The NDAA created Space Force in law, but it also must be funded by Congress in an appropriations bill.  The FY2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act allocated $40 million for Space Force, a little more than half the $72.4 million requested.  That does not include funds for military space programs.

U.S. Space Command and U.S. Space Force are easily confused.  Pursuant to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, the six military services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and now Space Force)  “organize, train and equip” (OTE) personnel. The personnel and equipment are available to 11 geographic and functional unified combatant commands that command and control military forces in peace and war.  U.S. Space Command is one of those 11 unified combatant commands.

Some see Space Force and Space Command as increasing U.S. militarization of space, but is important to remember that the United States had a Space Command from 1985-2002, so it is being reestablished, not created anew, and it is the entity charged with warfighting.

Space Force is new. In fact it is the first new U.S. military service since the Air Force was separated from the Army in 1947.  Initially it was simply a renaming of AFSPC. All 16,000 AFSPC personnel were assigned to the Space Force when President Trump signed the FY2020 NDAA into law. They are doing the same work they were doing in the years, months, weeks, days and hours before the bill was signed — designing, building, launching and operating satellites and performing other space-related functions to support military operations.

Since then, however, Space Force has been creating its own identity. To become a member of the Space Force, personnel must transfer into it, rather than simply being assigned.  Gen. Raymond was the only member for months until the top enlisted officer, Chief Master Sergeant Roger Towberman, transferred in. He was followed by 86 cadets graduating from the Air Force Academy and the first major tranche of transferees, 2,410, are arriving in the fall of 2020.

On August 10, 2020, Space Force released its first Space Doctrine, another step in establishing its own identity.


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.  The Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council, Scott Pace, said publicly in May 2020 that a new policy is being crafted.

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 new 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.

On June 17, 2020, DOD released its own Defense Space Strategy.  As noted above, Space Force release its first Space Doctrine on August 10, 2020.

Trump also has signed five 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 19, 2019, proposing establishment of a U.S. Space Force as part of the U.S. Air Force.
  • Space Policy Directive-5, September 4, 2020, establishing principles for space cybersecurity.

President Trump also issued an Executive Order on February 12, 2020 on “Strengthening National Resilience through Responsbile Use of Positioning, Navigation and Timing Services.”  PNT is more commonly known by the name of the DOD satellite system that provides those signals, the Global Positioning System (GPS).  Other countries have similar systems.  They are collectively referred to as Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).


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 promulgated 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.

As noted above, Trump released a Positioning, Navigation and Timing executive order on February 12, 2020.


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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