To win the new space race, US must abandon clunky, outdated systems


The United States is at an historic inflection point in terms of its national security. Depending on the path Washington takes, America will either secure its leadership and dominance in space for the foreseeable future or cede the high ground to competitors like China and Russia.

If the United States government can break its outdated model of acquisition, seize upon the new and emerging capabilities offered by commercial companies in space, and rapidly integrate advanced technologies into the national security space architecture, America will control the highest ground for the next generation and beyond.

{mosads}But, if Washington continues to rely on its overly bureaucratic acquisitions systems and risk calculus, it will lose the new space race. This may sound hyperbolic, but it is the critical risk our country faces today.


Today, the United States remains the number one power in space, but that dominance is challenged. According to General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, “(A)re we going to be in good shape in the long term? We didn’t build our systems for a contested environment.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Secure World Foundation (SWF) have published a pair of reports describing the counter space threats that potential adversaries like Russia and China are developing.

Our adversaries know the orbits of our satellites and our space capabilities more broadly, and are working to counter these strengths. Indeed, General Hyten has gone so far as to say that “I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets,” referring to the traditional satellites in use today.

While the senior Air Force leadership may say the right things, the sprawling bureaucracy they oversee is doing the exact opposite. Contracts to replace aging architectures are just “copy and paste” versions of previous iterations that leave little or no room for innovation. The requirements are nearly identical to the existing space architecture and are written to favor legacy companies. Those structures served us well in the past, but our enemies working hard to counter this well-known architecture.

In order to remain dominant, the United States needs to embrace and adopt emerging space capabilities more rapidly, efficiently, and effectively. To put it mildly, this is not a core strength of the Pentagon’s infamously risk-averse acquisition system. Taking risks is, well, risky. It is easier to continue programs of record and existing ways of doing business than to try something new that might fail. But simply continuing to use outdated platforms and models of operation is unsustainable.

On the other hand, the commercial space sector is in the midst of a revolution. Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Orbit are upending the launch market with reusable rockets and small launch capabilities. This is to say nothing of the other launch companies like Rocket Lab, Vector, and Stratolaunch. Taken together the price of launching a payload to orbit is dropping rapidly and will fall further as these companies generate an earth-to-orbit highway.

On the satellite side, we are witnessing incredible advances with smaller cube and nano-satellites. Private companies such as Planet and DigitalGlobe image the globe daily, offering high-resolution imagery in an instant. Soon these smaller satellites could form mega constellations of hundreds (or more) of individual units, increasing their capabilities exponentially.

The implications of this revolution in commercial space are coming into sharper focus by the day. Cheaper launch and, smaller and more capable payloads mean the United States can create a far more resilient architecture. This resiliency in turn increases deterrence. Today an adversary can attack one or two satellites and be certain of a crippling effect. With a mega-constellation, however, that same opponent would have to destroy many more satellites to achieve the same effect.

A more robust and resilient space architecture also means that our warfighters will have greater capabilities at their fingertips during a conflict. Imagine a globe spanning Wi-Fi network, for instance, with speeds as good as or better than terrestrial systems. While that may sound like science fiction, it’s precisely what SpaceX and OneWeb are aiming to accomplish.

The question now confronting U.S. space leadership is how do we get there from here? How do we leverage reusable rockets, small satellites, and large constellations to strengthen our national security space posture?

For starters, the Air Force and the Department of Defense must be willing to take more risks. They can take a page from the Silicon Valley playbook and not be afraid to “fail fast and fail forward.”

The Air Force also needs to change its acquisition mindset from “block buys” to purchasing test capabilities in one and two item increments as prototypes. At the same time, the U.S. government’s fundamental risk calculus needs to change. Cheaper launch and cheaper payloads will mean a failure isn’t as costly as the loss of a $1 billion, exquisitely capable satellite. Yet, today those relatively cheap payloads are treated nearly the same in terms of mission assurance.

Key leaders within the Air Force are working to reform the space acquisition system and drive this change. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, and General Hyten are all committed to revitalizing the Air Force’s space capabilities and going faster.

Rather than bicker over whether the United States needs a separate “Space Force,” Congress needs to give Secretary Wilson and General Goldfien the resources and support required to reform the current space system from within. The last thing the Pentagon needs is an entirely new bureaucracy on top of one that is already extremely complex and in need of streamlining and efficiency reforms.

The United States needs to get this right, and do so right now. Otherwise we will lose this once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize command of the highest ground. If we should fail, future generations of Americans will be harsh in their judgement of a historic opportunity lost.  

Joshua C. Huminski is the Director of the National Security Space Program and the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.

Tags Elon Musk Mike Rogers NewSpace outer space Reusable launch system Satellite Small satellite Space race Spaceflight SpaceX Transport

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