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 for unclassified programs only presumably is what is now reported in the Aeronautics and Space Report of the President.

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

  • Communications Satellites: Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS), Wide-Band Global Satcom (WGS), Milstar, Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF).
  • Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) satellites: Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Early Warning: Defense Support Program (DSP), Space Based Infrared Satellite System-High (SBIRS-High), Evolved SBIRS
  • 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: Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (Atlas V and Delta IV), Falcon 9, Pegasus, Minotaur (these also are used by the civil and commercial space sectors)

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.

However, both the House and the Senate remain dissatisfied with how DOD is managing its space programs at a time when they see U.S. space assets increasingly vulnerable to attack by adversaries including China and Russia.  The House and Senate have very different solutions that are being considered as part of the debate over the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The House wants to create a Space Corps within the Air Force analogous to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy and a U.S. Space Command as a subunit of U.S. Strategic Command.  The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to create a Chief Information Warfare Officer (CIWO) who would oversee space, cyberspace and information activities at DOD.


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 space policy, 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


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:


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 the left menu of our home page is a link to “Other Reports of Interest” that may be helpful.

Didn’t find what you were looking for? Let us know by emailing us at