The FY24 NDAA: End Strength, Space Force, Autonomous Systems Provisions

By Chauncey Goss   •
A Joby Aviation, Inc. experimental electronic vertical take-off and landing aircraft is parked at taxi way following a ground test at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Sept. 20. (Air Force photo by Harlan Huntington)

December brings the holidays and more often than not the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Congress views this defense policy bill as must-pass legislation and for the past 62 years the Armed Service Committees have delivered. The NDAA typically passes out of committees in the late spring or summer and then languishes until the colder months as policy differences between the parties are negotiated. This year is no different. A conference agreement (H.R. 2670) passed the Senate 87-13 (Dec. 13.) and the House 310-118 (Dec. 14.) The budget numbers used in the bill are still dependent on an appropriation. As a result, FBIQ tends to focus on the policies in the bill. Having said that, the topline in this bill is generally reflective of both President Biden’s FY24 Budget and the defense spending levels outlined in the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA).


The NDAA sets the authorization of the end strength of each of the services as well as the pay raise for both military and civilian personnel. For the Navy, the bill calls for a 16,500 Navy end strength decline from FY23 authorized levels. Actual end strength for FY23 is expected to be less than the authorized levels. Chart I includes the FY23 authorized end strength figures, the Defense Manpower Profile Report July estimate of end strength for FY23 and the NDAA authorized levels for FY24. Final FY23 official net figures, including recruiting and retention of currently serving members, aren’t yet available although DOD officials have said recruiting goals for the Army, Navy, and Air Force weren’t met. Under the bill, authorized Marine Corps end strength falls 4,700 from FY23 authorized levels. Air Force declines 5,344 while the Army declines by 7,000. As we would expect, the Space Force active duty end strength increases by 800. The bill language recognizes the challenges the services are having in recruiting and notes that the committees believe it is a multi-year challenge that should not be addressed by lowering recruiting standards. The bill provides a pay raise of 5.2%. The recruiting challenges, driven largely by low unemployment rates, are likely to accelerate the long-term trend of substituting advanced technology for personnel.

Chart I. Source: Joint Explanatory Statement and Bill Report for FY24 NDAA, Defense Manpower Profile Report


As Chart I notes, the Space Force is the only service seeing end strength growth with an authorized increase of 9.3% (not a surprise for the newest service). The bill also contains language (section 509b) that calls for the creation of a Space Force Legislative Liaison.

Section 1604 directs the Air Force to establish a Principal Military Deputy for Space Acquisition and Integration who will serve as an active duty officer in the Space Force.

Section 1606 authorizes the establishment of National Space Intelligence Center as a field operating agency for the Space Force to analyze and produce scientific and technical intelligence on space-based threats from foreign adversaries. This facility may be co-located with the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center located at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The Senate has concerns regarding the initial operating capability (IOC) timeline of the behind-schedule Advanced Tracking and Launch Analysis System (ATLAS) space object tracking program and section 1607 directs the Secretary of the Air Force to designate a date within 90 days of the passage of the bill on which the ATLAS is expected to achieve IOC. The language directs the Secretary to terminate the program and identify its replacement if the date identified for IOC is not met.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) is known for its rapid acquisitions and aggressive timelines that deliver proven capabilities without waiting for systems that meet DOD requirements. Section 1608 calls for the use of a middle tier acquisition (MTA) program (basically enhanced acquisition) for the rapid fielding of satellites and associated systems for tranche 1-3 of SDA’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.

FBIQ has identified space situational awareness as a growth area in the budget and section 1609 directs the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration to work with the Chief of Space Operations to establish a process that identifies and evaluates space situational awareness capabilities. Included in that assessment is the extent to which commercial space situational awareness data can fulfill the Space Force’s requirements. The bill also calls for the development of a plan that integrates the unified data library into the operational systems of the Space Force.

The House-passed NDAA identified threat sharing with commercial space operators under contract with DOD as an area that needs further planning and the bill directs the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, in consultation with the Commander of the US Space Command, to expand threat-sharing arrangements with commercial space operators. Within 180 days of the passage of the conference bill, the Assistant Secretary must submit a report to the Congressional defense committees outlining the plan for threat sharing.

The bill also includes a provision (section 1611) that calls for the development of a plan for an integrated and resilient satellite communications architecture. The plan should consider options for the integration of resilient military tactical satellite communication capabilities as well as providing for the integration of those capabilities into the Space Force. The plan should also ensure that geostationary small satellite communication constellations are evaluated as a component of the space data transport force design of the Space Force.

The bill language directs the Secretary of the Air Force to explore options for leveraging commercially available geostationary small satellite communications technology that is developed and produced in the United States. The bill also directs the Secretary to ensure there is enough funding available for integration.


The report language directs the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer, in coordination with the Test Resource Management Center, to perform a study that assesses the feasibility and advisability of establishing a centralized platform for the development and testing of autonomy software. This would assess the status of efforts to resource and integrate autonomy software into current DOD systems as well as those systems within the FYDP. It would also identify systems employed by DOD which are, or can be, integrated with autonomy software to enable the continuous operational availability of those systems.

The conferees note the increasing use of autonomous capabilities throughout the Department of Defense and believe the utilization of such capabilities will grow more essential and widespread in the years to come.

NDAA Conference Report


The Department of the Air Force, parent organization for Space Force, the newest member of the uniformed military services family, has always been regarded as the quickest to embrace new technologies. Space Force is continuing that tradition as seen in the NDAA provisions highlighted above. The other services are following a similar pattern as the threat environment evolves, substituting capital investments in research, development, test, and evaluation (leading to procurement if and when the R&D efforts bear fruit) for labor—end strength. The 800 personnel increase for Space Force is a reflection of the newness of the service and doesn’t detract from the overall emphasis on technologies such as satellites for command, control and communications as well as missile detection, autonomy, and artificial intelligence.

Although NDAA authorized funding levels are essentially a guide for FY24 appropriations, the strong bipartisan votes passing this bill will certainly influence FY24 spending negotiations between now and the February 2, 2024 continuing resolution deadline for the Defense appropriations bill.