Last week, Vice President Pence unveiled Space Force—the sparkling new military branch and future employer to thousands of children with Luke Skywalker jammies and Millennium Falcon bedsheets. But while the state-of-the-art Department of Defense bureau might seem like an exciting step into the future, it will add yet another budget slice to the already astronomical defense appropriation pie. The introduction of a new military branch has historically brought increased defense spending, taxes, and national debt; and unfortunately for Congress, floating money does not refer to “Benjamin Franklins” whizzing around a zero-gravity space station.
In economics, floating money refers to a duplication of funds. Most commonly found after a check is cashed, the amount in question is present in the accounts of both the check sender and check recipient for a short period of time—double the money (but not really). While recent laws passed by Congress limit banks’ ability to capitalize on floating money, the colloquialism “to float someone money” is still often used in reference to a small loan. In the case of Space Force, that small loan will likely come from the Air Force but certainly not at the expense of their budget. The American people will bear the brunt of that financial burden.
For Fiscal Year 2019, $12.5 billion will be allocated to cover the DoD’s aerospace priorities, $11.4 billion of which will be controlled by the Air Force. When Vice President Pence delivered his remarks regarding the future of U.S. military strength in space, he stated that President Trump intends to request Space Force funding in his annual budget request next year. Congress would then work with the White House to establish an allocation to the newest branch in the National Defense Authorization Act. But even though a new branch of the military would take over the majority of responsibilities in space, the $11.4 billion dollars from the Air Force would not simply shift over to Space Force—we only have to go back 70 years for proof.
The Air Force was founded in 1947 to address a growing military threat by air. If that sounds familiar it is because proponents of Space Force use the same argument, simply replacing the word “air” with “space.” Before the existence of the Air Force, the role of patrolling the skies was in the hands of the United States Army via the United States Army Air Forces. From 1946 to 1950, the average annual Army Budget was $64 billion. These were the inaugural years of the Air Force, which averaged a budget of $25 billion in the same time frame. The very next decade, however, the Air Force annual budget ballooned to $80 billion dollars while the Army’s average annual budget only dropped by $7 billion. The difference in cost was of course covered by tax payers as Congress authorized the military budget each year—any shortcomings were tacked on to the national debt. It should also be mentioned that since its founding, the Air Force has consistently received a higher budget than the Army, despite its smaller size.
The new branch, Air Force, brought higher military expenditures, which makes sense—planes are more expensive than tanks. But spacecraft are more expensive than planes. The fact of the matter is clear: a new military branch brings new military spending, and new military spending creates more national debt. Congress cannot use the floating money technique to cover Space Force and Air Force equally. The money has to come from somewhere, and Air Force brass will certainly push back against any budget cuts that come their way. Our only hope is that Congress will understand the gravity of this decision and not allow history to repeat itself—unlikely.