President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have vowed to take the United States in a sharply different direction on issues like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
But with regard to space and its importance to national security, analysts and industry insiders believe the Biden administration will largely stay the course.
The arrival of a new administration “does not portend any immediate abrupt changes to U.S. national security or civil space programs. Space continues to be a bipartisan policy area and Joe Biden’s campaign has articulated their belief in the importance of the domain,” the Washington aerospace and defense-focused consulting firm Velos said in an email to clients.
Biden has “expressed no plans for structural changes to U.S. space programs,” Velos noted. “The Democratic Party national platform supports continuity within NASA and the Space Force.”
This outlook suggests Biden will not undo President Donald Trump’s major reorganization of national security space. Trump in August 2019 reactivated U.S. Space Command as the military’s 11th unified combatant command and worked with Congress to establish the U.S. Space Force in December 2019.
The Space Force, the nation’s first new military branch since the Air Force was established in 1947, became one of Trump’s priorities early in his administration. But the Space Force is not as partisan an issue as some would believe, noted Joshua Huminski, director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs’ National Security Space Program.
Although Trump championed the Space Force, the initial effort to form a new service grew out of a bipartisan push from the House Armed Services Committee going back to late 2016. That was when then-chairman and ranking member of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) started advocating for a separate space branch.
Rogers and Cooper wrote language to establish a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force. The provision was passed by the House in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act but was defeated in the House-Senate conference.
The only difference between the Space Corps of 2017 and the Space Force of 2019 is “just one word,” Cooper told reporters last December just days before Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that established the U.S. Space Force.
“I think the important thing to consider is that the intellectual foundation of the Space Force existed well before President Trump,” said Huminski.
The rationale for a military space service — that U.S. access to space and the safe operations of satellites are threatened by Russia and China — has been accepted on both sides, he said. “And the mission and threat will continue on, and perhaps accelerate into President Biden’s administration.”
Many Democrats — and several of Trump’s Pentagon appointees — opposed creating a separate space service rather than elevating its standing within the Air Force. But a majority of lawmakers voted for it because they believed the Pentagon needed to do more to protect U.S. space assets critical to the military and to the civilian economy, said David Burbach, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
If the Space Force didn’t already exist, Biden probably would not advocate to create one, Burbach said. “But given that it’s been done, I think the focus will be on trying to make it work effectively,” he added.
To be sure, even if Biden wanted to fold the Space Force back into the Air Force, he could not do that by executive order, Burbach pointed out. The Space Force is now cemented in law as the sixth branch of the U.S. armed services so changing its status would require Congress to enact new legislation.
With Republicans favored to keep the majority in the Senate, there is no chance Congress would pass legislation to roll back the Space Force, Burbach said. “No way would the Republican Senate go along with undoing that accomplishment for Trump.”
Even if Democrats eke out a narrow majority following a Jan. 5 runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats, lawmakers who championed the original legislation are poised to retain leadership positions on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in the next Congress.
DOD INVESTMENTS IN SPACE TECHNOLOGY
Trump’s final budget proposal — which is still before Congress — seeks more than $15 billion for the Space Force, with about $12 billion of that amount set aside for research, development and procurement of new systems.
“We don’t see those budgets changing, at least not immediately,” said Eric Stallmer, executive vice president of government affairs and public policy at Voyager Space Holdings.
“Of course the administration will take a hard look at what we’re spending,” he said. “At some point everybody is going to have to take a little bit of a haircut.”
But space might fare better than other portions of the defense budget, said Stallmer. “Space has been bipartisan and it’s a critical asset to the security of the nation.”
Biden has identified space as one category of military spending that will be emphasized. “We have to make smart investments in technologies and innovations — including in cyber, space, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence — that will be necessary to meet the threats of the future,” Biden told the Military Officers Association of America in a Q&A published in September.
“We have to move away from investments in legacy systems that won’t be relevant for tomorrow’s wars, and we have to rethink the contributions we and our allies make to our collective security,” Biden said.
Many predict Biden will come under political pressure from the progressive wing of his party to cut military spending to pay for domestic priorities.
“Obviously there will be trade-offs,” said Clementine Starling, deputy director of Forward Defense at the Atlantic Council. “But in the long run I think we will start to see more of a focus and investment in new technologies including cyber, space, directed energy, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.”
Huminski suggested that budgets for defense and space are “a big open question, especially in light of a COVID-19-driven, resource-constrained environment.” This would be bad news for the Space Force, he said. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Despite bipartisan congressional support for the Space Force, committees have been critical of space acquisition programs for being too slow compared to the pace of technological innovation in the private sector, Huminski noted. “Acquisition reform remains unfinished.”
Among the members of Biden’s presidential transition teams for the Department of Defense is Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who focuses on defense acquisition and industrial policy. The selection of Hunter, a former Pentagon procurement official during the Obama presidency, hints at the new administration’s intent to examine Pentagon acquisitions.
SPACE SECURITY CONCERNS
Foreign policy experts, meanwhile, wonder how Biden might use other tools of statecraft beyond the military to deal with spacefaring rivals like Russia and China.
“This is the essential balance that the United States will need to strike regarding outer space: finding a way to work with states like Russia and China on space sustainability and safety issues, while at the same time pushing back on security issues when necessary,” commented Frank Rose, a foreign policy and arms control expert who provided informal counsel to the Biden campaign for president.
China’s growing anti-satellite capabilities will be a challenge for the coming administration, Rose wrote in a paper published in April by the Brookings Institution.
The United States will need to develop a strategy that deters China’s increasing anti-satellite capabilities, said Rose. But the U.S. government, he added, also should try to work with China cooperatively on sustainability and safety issues like orbital debris, space traffic management, and the rise of satellite megaconstellations.
Military solutions like standing up U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force will not be enough to address the rise of China and other challenges to space security, said Rose. “Bilateral diplomatic engagements with China also need to be part of the strategy.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.