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 was requested for the Space Force, it was $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 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 chaired the Space Council at the time, 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.  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 did not include funds for military space programs.

Raymond was dual-hatted as Commander of U.S. Space Command until Army General James Dickinson assumed command on August 20, 2020.

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, 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, arrived in the fall of 2020 and more continue to join.

On August 10, 2020, Space Force released its first Space Doctrine, another step in establishing its own identity.  Raymond is building the service from scratch and is determined to keep it small, agile, and digital.


During the four years of his Administration, President Trump signed an updated National Space Policy, seven Space Policy Directives (SPDs), five space-related Executive Orders, two strategies, two reports, and one National Security Presidential Memoradum (NSPM).  Not all are directed at national security space policy, but all are listed here in chronological order for completeness.

On March 23, 2018, President Trump released a new National Space Strategy that covers national security, commercial and civil space activities.  On June 17, 2020, DOD released its own Defense Space Strategy.  As noted above, the U.S. Space Force released its first Space Doctrine on August 10, 2020.

As of December 7, 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration has not yet issued any new space policies, but Vice President Kamala Harris, as chair of the National Space Council, released a Space Policy Framework on December 1, 2021 in conjunction with the first meeting of the Space Council under her leadership. It covers all aspects of space policy, including national security. Biden released an Executive Order the same day expanding the membership and duties of the Council, which supersedes the two issued by Trump (in 2017 and 2020).


Historically, President Obama’s 2010 National Space Policy superseded the policy issued in 2006 by President George W. Bush.  Also during the Obama Administration, 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 during Obama’s term: NSSS Unclassified Fact Sheet, NSSS Briefing Slides,  NSSS DOD Initiatives Fact Sheet

When the Obama Administration released its 2010 National Space Policy, it stated it would release additional specific space policies on other topics as previous Presidents had done. President George W. Bush had issued the following:

On November 21, 2013, President Obama released an update of the Space Transportation Policy.

Obama did not, however, release updated versions of the others.

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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