A Falcon Heavy rocket prepared for launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Dec. 27, 2023, carrying a Space Force X-37B orbital test vehicle.

A Falcon Heavy rocket prepared for launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Dec. 27, 2023, carrying a Space Force X-37B orbital test vehicle. U.S. Space Force

The State of the Space Force 2024

The young service is focusing on contested space—even as its budgets return to Earth.

Reports that Russia might be developing a nuclear space weapon underscore what Pentagon officials have been saying for a few years now: space is no longer an uncontested domain. That’s why the Space Force is shifting its focus to a “warfighting posture” and spending money on programs to help fend off attacks in space—even in a year when the young service’s rising budgets are being brought down to Earth.

“There is no doubt there are weapons on orbit that are designed to take away U.S. space capabilities. That's why the Space Force is so focused on getting optimized for that kind of contested domain, giving our operators the tactics, the training, the reps and sets, I like to say, to practice their tradecraft, because we know that our adversaries are going to have those kinds of capabilities to deny us space,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman told Defense One in March during its annual State of Defense event series. 

Saltzman said it’s not surprising that Russia is developing an anti-satellite capability because Moscow, like Beijing, has been investing heavily in recent years to put weapons on orbit. China is also reportedly building out its own “Starlink-like” capability in space, and wants to put thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit to rival U.S. proliferation. 

“What's most concerning to me about the Chinese is that they have built a number of different categories of weapons and they are operationalizing them at a tremendously fast rate. We've got to keep pace with that. We've got to keep an eye on them, we've got to monitor what they're doing, we have to invest, we have to train, we have to make sure that we can counter those activities as they unfold,” Saltzman said.

The Pentagon’s need to build and protect orbital capability has boosted the Space Force’s budget in each of its four years—but that will stop in fiscal 2025, for which the service is requesting $29.4 billion, down $0.6 billion from last year.   

The decrease means that the Space Force isn’t moving as quickly as it would like to on a few key space programs, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during the budget rollout. 

Several factors lowered the Space Force’s top line, including a reduction in planned satellite launches, Saltzman said. 

“In this case, there was about $600 million in reductions in the number of launches that we required, because payloads weren’t ready or the manifest didn’t support [it]—again, any number of reasons why that would be the case,” Saltzman said. 

The 2025 spending proposal calls for 11 launches, down from the 15 planned: $1.8 billion for seven launches through the National Security Space Launch program and $375 million for four launches for the Space Development Agency’s low-Earth orbit constellation.

Part of the reason the Space Force was squeezed this year was because the Pentagon had to build its budget under a defense-spending cap from Congress. Space Force officials haven’t said how the cap affected specific space programs, but Saltzman said that caused “fiscal constraint” across the department. 

“We complied with it because it's the law of the land. We took the budgeting information we had and we built the programs as best we could,” he said.

Saltzman said the cap will slow the service’s “counterspace effort,” the largely classified effort to develop capabilities to keep an enemy from using space assets.

“This is the area where I wish we could go faster, but the constraints have laid out so that we're not going to be able to go as fast as we can. We're still investing in those capabilities, maybe just not as quickly as we otherwise could,” he said. 

But despite the decrease to the topline in the 2025 request, Saltzman said the service can still make a shift to “warfighting footing,” and is doing so through a few efforts this year, like investing in space domain awareness—being able to characterize satellites, debris, and any other objects on orbit. 

“We've invested in FY 25 in making sure that we have both the sensors to collect all the data that we need, as well as the tools to make sense out of that data. Our investments in new radars that are coming online over the next few years, as well as tools to better aggregate that information, the vast amount of information, we get into a meaningful operational picture,” Saltzman said. 

To position itself for conflict, the service is also investing in “resilient architectures.” 

“We don't want an adversary to have an advantage by striking first, and so we're progressing in creating resilient architectures for missile warning, for satellite communications, so that we can continue to provide those capabilities even if we were in a contested space domain,” Saltzman said.  

The service asked for $4.7 billion for missile warning and tracking satellites in multiple orbits in its 2025 budget request, which includes $2.6 billion for the Resilient Missile Warning and Tracking program and $2.1 billion for the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program, or Next-Gen OPIR

The Space Force is also spending a lot of money to launch hundreds of satellites into low-Earth orbit. The resulting constellation, called the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, or PWSA, will start delivering operational capabilities for warfighters in 2024. The “proliferated” design would allow the Pentagon to continue operations even if an adversary takes out a few of its satellites.

Asked if the service will be able to field this architecture quickly enough to keep up with the threat, Saltzman said: “I always want to go faster, I always want more capabilities. But I am confident that we have a sense of urgency for how fast we want to put that proliferated architecture in place.”

The Space Force is also working through its part of a massive reoptimization effort the Department of the Air Force launched to prepare for a fight with China.

The service is standing up a new command, called Space Futures Command, to determine the types of missions the service must pursue to combat future threats. That command could begin early operations by the end of the year, officials said. 

The command will look at new missions for the Space Force, like cislunar operations and on-orbit refueling and dynamic space operations. 

“Space domain awareness in the GEO-belt and closer to Earth is one kind of space domain awareness, but as you get to cislunar, what we call xGEO, the orbital mechanics change. You have more gravitational attraction, the math that it takes to understand what’s going on is different, and so it really is a fundamentally different kind of mission to track what’s going on in cislunar,” Saltzman said. 

The Space Force knows it will have to operate in this environment in the future, Saltzman said, so the command will put together the operational concepts and wargame them to figure out precisely what it will take for the force to take on those new missions. 

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