It’s budget season in Washington. The President’s 2021 budget request delivered to Congress Feb. 10 is the start of an annual rite of spring in which political parties and branches of government spell out competing priorities for programs and spending and then (sometimes) reach bipartisan compromise to enact a budget for the following year.
This year will be unique, marking the first-ever budget submission that splits the Air Force budget, breaking out the new U.S. Space Force as an independent service. As such, it marks a turning point and a unique opportunity to bring sense and logic to a convoluted budget construct.
Creating an independent Space Force is, more than anything else, an investment strategy. The virtue of a separate force isn’t about changing who designs, specifies, or operates military satellites—or who partakes of their services. It’s about ensuring space requirements are prioritized and that those priorities get translated into investment.
To meet the demands of our National Defense Strategy, the same must also hold true for the Air Force.
That’s why this year’s legislative cycle presents a critical opportunity to repair long-term distortions in the U.S. defense budget. Like a warped mirror at a circus sideshow, these distortions skew reality, turning a thin Air Force fat by padding its budget with billions of dollars that are neither controlled nor used by the Air Force. Rather, these funds pay for classified intelligence programs, mostly in space.
Here’s how the 2021 budget proposal breaks down—if you aren’t paying attention:
- Department of the Army: $178 billion (25.2% of total defense spending)
- Department of the Air Force: $207 billion (29.3%)
- Department of the Navy: $207 billion (29.3%)
- Other defense agencies: $113 billion (16.0%)
These figures are roughly in line with one of the most persistent myths in Washington: that the Pentagon’s budget is split into four pieces, with 30 percent each to the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and the balance, a slim 10 percent, funding civilian support agencies. It suggests relative parity among the services—but belies the truth about our national investment in defense.
Pull back the covers and the truth looks substantially different:
- Department of the Army: $178 billion (25.2%)
- Navy: $161 billion (22.8%)
- Air Force: $154 billion (21.8%)
- Other Defense Agencies: $150 billion (21.3%)
- Marine Corps: $46 billion (6.5%)
- Pass-through funding in USAF budget: $38.2 billion (5.4%)
- Space Force: $15 billion (2.1%)
Even after a defense review helped identify billions that can be reinvested in other priorities, so-called Fourth Estate defense agencies still account for 21 cents of every dollar, double the supposed standard. Strikingly, this investment yields almost no fighting power, yet costs almost as much as the entire Air Force—and 10 times more than the fledgling Space Force.
The other market distortion here is pass-through funding. What began as a way of obfuscating exactly what the nation was investing in intelligence technology during the Cold War has morphed over time into an entitlement for the Intelligence Community—a secret stash of cash that costs two-thirds as much as the Marine Corps, yet is hidden in the details of the Air Force budget. As convenient as this is for the IC, it is a burden the Air Force can ill afford.
Pass-through spending almost doubled in the past decade, even as the Air Force lost ground in its battle to modernize its aging fleets of geriatric aircraft. It’s time to end the charade and deliver transparency to taxpayers.
Stephen Kitay, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said as much in response to a question in February. “Generally speaking, when you say ‘do we need transparency there,’ I think we do,” he said, carefully steering clear of explicit budget matters outside his purview. “People need to understand that these are the air programs, these are the space programs, this is ‘other.’ I do think it’s important that that comes through.”
It is important. But as long as the pass-through remains, the truth is hard to see.
The birth of a new service presents a compelling case for righting these wrongs. Instead of prolonging this deception, Congress and the administration have the rare opportunity to clean up the budget and start anew. They can begin by relocating the pass-through to a more appropriate department, whether that is a particular agency or the Director of National Intelligence. Either one would be acceptable, because it’s all intelligence spending, anyway. What it isn’t, is Air Force or Space Force.
Next, review the roles, missions, responsibilities, and requirements for space in each of the military departments. This is not a matter of yanking out everything with “space” in its name and turning it over to the Space Force, but rather a necessary effort to rationalize what belongs in the centralized space service and what capabilities need to remain organic to effective operating units in the air, sea, and land domains. We should not see every service operating its own satellite constellations, for example. But it does make sense to have expert space consumers in every service.
Merging Navy and Army space capabilities into the new Space Force will help establish jointness as a core competency within the Space Force and pave the way to an integrated approach to space and its constituent customers. No one gains anything if the Space Force is little more than a renamed Air Force Space Command, as it is today. The nation only gains if the new service makes the other services better. And that will only happen if it has endemic connections to each of the other services.
Likewise, no one gains from budget games that obscure our true investments in national defense and leave our most critical offensive military assets—our combat air forces—handicapped by age and decay.
Today, the U.S. Air Force and Space Force find themselves locked in a great power competition for primacy in their respective domains, and they are also locked in a crucial competition for resources. While deception has its advantages in war, it undermines sound policy making. Leaders need to be frank about how they spend taxpayer money. It’s one thing to try to fool the enemy. It’s quite another to try to pull one over on those you are supposed to protect.