Challenges of a Year-Long Continuing Resolution on the Pentagon’s Plans for Space

While the nascent United States Space Force only makes up a small percent of the nation’s total defense budget, it is still in a period of intense growth. Aerospace’s Sam Wilson takes a closer look at how reductions, in the absence of appropriations bills funding the entire federal government, could significantly impact major satellite systems and space-based capabilities.

The Aerospace Corporation
3 min readMar 4, 2024

The Department of Defense (DoD) is in the early stages of executing a new approach for space operations. Due to China and Russia’s expanding counterspace capabilities, the Pentagon’s focus is shifting towards building greater resiliency. This effort has two main threads. First, building constellations of small spacecraft so that even if an adversary attacks an individual U.S. satellite, a large portion of space capability will remain. The 2022 National Defense Strategy touts this approach as reducing “adversary incentives for early attack.” Simultaneously, the Department is proposing investment in capabilities needed to protect and defend the satellite constellations that the nation has fielded over past decades.

In the absence of appropriations bills funding the entire federal government by April 30, the military services would see their 2024 budgets reduced to one percent less than prior year’s funding under the Fiscal Responsibility Act. The nascent Space Force only makes up about 3.2 percent of DOD’s total budget, but it is still in a period of intense growth, so the effect of a year-long continuing resolution would be significant. The service’s appropriations grew 47 percent from 2022 to 2023, and President Biden’s 2024 request calls for nearly $4 billion (15 percent) in additional growth to support new space capabilities. Since space programs depend on multi-year development commitments, these forward-looking numbers are the ones that really matter. These increases would be lost if the DoD was held to one percent below its FY 2023 budget and the capabilities in question would have to be deferred.

The composition of the Space Force’s budget reveals the minimal capacity it has to absorb such a cut. Unlike the other services, the Space Force does not have large and flexible operations and maintenance accounts from which it could delay maintenance or sustainment. As a hardware-focused service with a small personnel footprint, developing and procuring capabilities accounts for nearly 80 percent of the Space Force’s budget compared to less than 50 percent for the other services. Moreover, the service has been in the midst of transitioning more of its development efforts to fixed price contracts, reducing flexibility to absorb unexpected budget reductions.

A sizable reduction in budget would drive significant delays to major satellite systems and the options are few. The 2024 budget request lists only a handful of programs over $1 billion: (1) the Space Development Agency’s effort to build large numbers of satellites in low Earth orbit, (2) satellites designed to detect adversary missile launches, (3) classified spending, and (4) launch. Finding over $4 billion in cuts would likely mean reductions to efforts foundational to the Department’s new space strategy, a strategy that has received bipartisan and bicameral support.

For more, be sure to read Issue Brief: New Priorities and Long-Term Developments Toward a New Architecture.

Sam Wilson is a systems director for the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at The Aerospace Corporation.