Let me begin with a frank assessment: when it comes to military space, science and technology (S&T) is woefully underfunded. Executing the priorities of the National Security Strategy and other assorted national strategy documents and fulfilling the needs of USSPACECOM and the other combatant commands cannot be met at our current level of S&T investment. Indeed, to simply "tread water" will require the United States to quadruple its current space S&T budget to $1B – and that is likely an underestimation.
Space, after all, is a technology-centric domain, and the U.S. faces a serious challenge there from China. The PRC is working diligently to steal the lead from the U.S. in terms of space innovation: conducting launches more often than the U.S. and rapidly fielding both new space systems and new counter-space systems. Indeed, China is now pressuring U.S. spacepower from every angle. It is threatening American systems in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO). It is expected to field a full counter-space system by 2030. And it is pursuing game-changing technologies such as reusable space launch, space nuclear power, high power directed energy systems – and doing so while pushing out deeper into Lunar space.
We should remember that a fundamental purpose of the Congressional architects of the U.S. Space Force – current Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN-05), and former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI-08) – was to address concerns that space S&T was not receiving the priority it should, and was at an all-time low. They noted that space Research Development, Testing and Evaluation (RDT&E) had never recovered from sequestration, even though Air Force RDT&E had done so. In fact, while the Pentagon spends $109 billion in RDT&E overall, space-related Science and Technology expenditures currently don’t even makeup 1% of that budget. America tightened its Space S&T budget for decades, and as a result, we’ve allowed our competitors to race ahead.
While there is certainly an ambitious vision for military space S&T and promising ongoing activities, there remains a long list of lines of effort designed to preserve America’s edge in Space S&T that remain unfunded. That list encompasses no less than 13 initiatives believed by experts to be worthy of investment, ranging from a “space combat cloud” that provides an overhead command, control, computing and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance layer to low-cost satellite protection technologies.
These and other projects are a good place to begin securing U.S. military advantage in space. But the problem is a broader one. Space S&T is critically underfunded and needs to be expanded dramatically. A realistic starting point for even a bare-bones program capable of keeping abreast of space technology developments would clock in at $1 Billion.
Such a surge is money very well spent, not just for the aerospace sector but also for the economy as a whole. Unlike many military investments, space is not a bill to pay but rather an asset with concrete returns. Studies of similar space technology investments in NASA estimate that $1 Billion in expenditures would generate 14,500 jobs and that the technology return on investment is between $7 and $21 for every dollar spent. Military space research has arguably done much better. GPS, which cost $12 Billion to place in orbit, returns over $1 Billion every day and has returned over $1.4 Trillion in economic benefits to the economy since being made available to the public in the 1980s.
Military space research enables broader security interests as well. GPS-enabled navigation has reduced global fuel expenditures (and carbon emissions) between 15 and 21 percent per year, making it the ultimate green-tech infrastructure investment. From the overhead environmental monitoring of extreme weather or climate intelligence trends or deep space sensing of extreme solar weather or dangerous asteroids, such investments provide situational awareness and warning to protect lives, property, and the environment.
All of these should help convince policymakers that such technology is a smart investment in its own right. But the strategic advances of adversaries like China hammer home a broader geopolitical point: if the U.S. hopes to stay ahead of its competitors – in technology and economics or maintaining its military edge – it cannot delay increasing funding for Space S&T. There’s no time to waste.
Peter Garretson is Senior Fellow in Defense Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.