Making an Ally of Silicon Valley

Ash Carter, U.S. Defense Secretary, was back in Silicon Valley this month promoting collaboration between DoD and a region synonymous with disruption and innovation — qualities the Pentagon needs in an era of flat budgets and growing threats.

During a speech in San Francisco, Carter dangled this lure: DoD will spend $22 billion on space programs alone in 2017.

While Carter did not give a breakdown of that $22 billion figure, we can deduce it encompasses three areas: unclassified DoD programs, intelligence community programs, and classified DoD programs.

Let’s start with the first category. The Air Force carries the lion’s share of the Defense Department’s space portfolio, building satellites and launching rockets. That budget is $8.9 billion for 2017.

Next, how much does the Pentagon spend on classified space programs within the intelligence community, such as the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the country’s spy satellites?

That number is classified. But among the documents Edward Snowden leaked in 2013 was the NRO’s budget. At the time, it was $10.3 billion. Let’s assume flat budgets since then.

Combined, that’s about $19 billion of the $22 billion, leaving roughly $3 billion for non-NRO classified space programs.

So what to make of the $22 billion figure?

In a recent budget presentation, Doug Loverro the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for space policy, said the Pentagon would spend about $200 billion on space in the next 10 years, or about $20 billion a year.

That means the 2017 figure appears to be on pace. But without the context of spending in prior years, the $22 billion figure is worthless. That’s why Congress has complained in recent years that it’s difficult to account for spending on space programs and why they’re mandating additional transparency in future Pentagon budgets.

Here’s one place to start, though: the latest “Aeronautics and Space Report of the President,” an annual report mandated by the 1958 law that established NASA. The most-recently available report, the 2014 edition, shows a high-water mark of $26.5 billion in 2012, or $4 billion more than Carter’s 2017 figure. The report shows only $10 billion in DoD space spending in 2013 and 2014, but that’s because it omitted classified spending for those years (The Space Foundation estimated combined DoD and intelligence community space spending for 2013 and 2014 at $21.7 billion and $22.5 billion, respectively).

Clearly, space has been getting more attention from top DoD officials, a trend likely to accelerate if Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, is promoted to Air Force chief of staff as many expect. But that attention hasn’t translated into bigger budgets.

By pointing to the $22 billion figure, Carter was reminding Silicon Valley — where Facebook and Google snatch up tiny startups for a billion dollars — that DoD has deep pockets, too.

For those attuned to how that $22 billion stacks up against recent budgets, Carter’s elevator pitch carries a different message: space is important, but budgets are flat. The Pentagon, to quote Apple, has to “think different.”