Media outlets the world over have been reporting on Air Force documents outlining the projected costs associated with establishing a new branch of the American armed forces tasked specifically with orbital defense (Space Force), and based on the headlines, it seems like many outlets have never seen the defense budget before.
According to the Air Force’s estimates, standing up this new branch would require an investment of a bit less than $3 billion per year over five years to address the administrative and logistical challenges associated with the new branch, recruit personnel, and reach initial operational capacity. Let there be no mistake, $3 billion is no small sum of money, and the repeated expense over the span of five years only exacerbates concerns about the cost of culling space authority from the Air Force’s command structure, but when viewed through the lens of existing defense initiatives, $13 billion is really just a drop in the bucket.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which is what the defense budget is called among the politicians that vote on it, sets aside a whopping $717 billion for defense initiatives this year. That means the price tag on the Space Force would equate to less than half of one percent of the annual defense budget. In fact, the entire five year expenditure would ring in at just about the same price tag as the latest American aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which is expected to exceed $13 billion in total costs before entering into full service.
The troubled F-35 program, of course, is expected to reach nearly $1.5 trillion dollars during its operational lifespan, making it the most expensive defense system ever developed, and the next generation frigate the U.S. Navy hopes to begin procuring shortly is expected to cost close to a billion dollars per hull. In fact, the establishment of the Space Force would actually cost less than the Pentagon paid into the the “Future Combat System” program that was supposed to field new ground combat vehicles but after more than $18 billion was sunk into it, the program was canceled without fielding a single combat operational unit.
There’s no argument that $3 billion per year is a lot of money, but when laid side by side with defense initiatives that are ongoing, it seems almost budget friendly. The U.S. Air Force has consistently argued in favor of keeping space responsibilities squarely within their operational domain for the sake of keeping costs down, but a recent announcement from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson argued that the branch wants an additional $18 billion per year to support combat and deterrence operations around the globe. That’s right, the raise the Air Force is asking for could pay for a new Space Force and then some every year.
None of this is to say those other endeavors were or are a less worthy cause to fund, but rather to serve as an important bit of perspective when inundated by headlines that suggest a $13 billion price tag on an entirely new branch is somehow unheard of.