The US needs a plan for space operations and national security
The role of commercial space in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is nothing short of astonishing. From near constant surveillance from multi-spectral satellites appearing on the news on a regular basis to the use of commercial satellites to augment military operations, this war illustrated just how much of an impact space can have on a modern battlefield.
Lost amidst this coverage is how commercial space arrived at this point where it can be such a game-changer, and what we need to do next to ensure America’s space industry remains dominant. The decisions that led to where we have all of these commercial innovations were made five, 10 and 15 years ago, if not further. It has been a steady state of investment, experimentation, trials and errors, successes and failures. It was, and remains, anything but a linear process. Mavericks and risk-takers in the commercial space industry saw an opportunity and took it, and we’re reaping the benefits today.
Throughout this process, the U.S. government was and remains a partner — a fitful one to be sure, but a key partner nonetheless. The military and intelligence community’s unique needs, as well as those in civil space, drove requirements and, in turn, helped drive investment. In many cases, it provided critical contractual guarantees and seed investment and has benefited from the outcome. Much work remains to be done on reforming the Space Force’s acquisition processes.
While we are heartened by the progress that has been made thus far, there is a long way to go to match the government’s speed of purchase and integration with the industry’s speed of innovation. Under General Jay Raymond, the Space Force did what many thought was impossible — standing up a force and building a service culture in just two years. Yet the real, lasting legacy, may well be changing that acquisition culture: what is bought and how it is acquired.
Acquisition reform is a perennial issue, but it is only one part of a much broader challenge that demands the attention of the administration, the Space Force and Congress if the United States is to seize upon the innovations of the commercial sector and outpace the threat represented by China. We need to truly start looking at the space economy as an ecosystem, not merely its constituent parts.
The challenges facing the United States in the era of strategic competition affect the space sector as much as other industries and need as much attention as those, as well. We’re seeing supply chain disruptions in the areas of semiconductors, a tightening supply of critical helium and attempts by China to corner the vital rare earth metals market, all of which are necessary to support existing levels of space operations, but even more so if we are to achieve launch cadences and levels of activity in orbit many predict.
The United States must also reform its sclerotic licensing and regulatory framework. The structures that developed over the last two and three decades were suitable when a handful of rockets were launched on an infrequent basis, putting aloft one or two satellites at a time. That is no longer appropriate when Rocket Lab is launching two rockets 10 days apart and SpaceX is flying and landing three Falcon 9 boosters in 36 hours. As Blue Origin and others join the launch cadence, approvals must come faster.
SpaceX now has over 2,500 satellites operating in orbit now and is anticipated to grow to 4,400. Amazon’s Project Kuiper anticipates some 3,200 satellites alone. That’s nearly 8,000 satellites between two constellations, and who knows how many more may follow. The challenges of managing spectrum and approving necessary licensing already outpace the abilities of the FAA and FCC. We cannot afford to let inefficient regulation stand in the way of innovation and competition. We need smart and efficient processes that facilitate both.
This satellite proliferation means we also need greater attention on the part of the government in orbital management to include space traffic management and debris mitigation. We need to establish norms of behavior and take the lead internationally on these critical subjects, lest we allow China to define the future of space operations. While work is underway in the administration and federal departments, the pace needs to accelerate.
This ultimately necessitates a broader and more robust definition of what national security space means. It, of course, includes the great work of the Space Force, Space Command and intelligence community. But it must also include our commercial partners, our industrial base and the governance of space. This has been the case in theory, but it is now time we put that definition into practice.
The sooner we look at space not just as an economy, but as a critical ecosystem, the sooner we will be able to better prepare our commercial and national security space sectors for the future. Right now, we are on the edge of the Oregon Trail of space, but we need to ensure we have the wood, the wheels, the map, and the tools necessary to forge West. These issues, and others, will be the focus of our National Security Space Program in the coming year, and we hope to advance this critical dialogue. Getting policy right, here on earth, will ensure our leadership in near-earth orbit and beyond.
Mike Rogers served in Congress as a Republican representative from Michigan and is a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire chair with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Glenn Nye served in Congress as a Democratic representative from Virginia. He is now the chief executive officer and president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.