We can go fast in space before the 'Space Force'

We can go fast in space before the 'Space Force'
© Getty Images

During Monday’s meeting of the National Space Council the President surprised many by directing the Pentagon to establish a sixth force — a Space Force. This is not the first time the president floated the idea — one that some in Congress support and many within the Air Force do not — and it is far from a done deal. Indeed, Congress needs to weigh in on any such reorganization. The focus on space, while welcome, misses some critical changes that can take place today — not in three or five years’ time.

ADVERTISEMENT
One such idea is rapid reconstitution. Today, and by law, the United States must have assured access to space. In essence, at least two space launch vehicles — or families of vehicles — must be available at all times to the secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence. Thus, if one goes down or is no longer available, the United States will not lose access to space. “Assured access” smartly ensures that the United States would maintain access to space in all conditions.

 

Draft National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) language (since removed) would have amended that law to “include consideration of rapid, responsive, and reliable space launches for national security space programs”. The key phrase here is “rapid, responsive” launch. Today, the United States lacks a truly rapid or responsive launch capability. It is, of course, very reliable as evidenced by the performance of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) on national security missions.

The rapid and responsive portion of the equation doesn’t exist today because that’s not how the United States has planned for or operated in space. National security launches are acquired, typically, at least two years out (if not more) and require an extensive amount of government oversight. This process is “reminiscent of a Soviet-era five-year plan for tractor manufacturing,” to borrow a phrase uttered during a recent Mitchell Institute breakfast hosting Lt Gen John “JT” Thompson (the commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command) on Capitol Hill.

The launch side is the shortest pole in the rapid reconstitution tent. In the near term if requested, SpaceX would shift a commercial customer to fit in a government national security payload. ULA may take longer given its slower launch tempo but, still, would certainly work with the government to launch a satellite.

In the mid-term with Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Stratolaunch, Vector, and others coming online, a launch cadence will develop that will offer the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) a range of options to put an asset into orbit.

The long pole in the tent is what is put into orbit. The United States doesn’t have an inventory of satellites sitting on the shelf that it could launch into orbit on short notice. It also doesn’t have an orbital platform from which it could deploy replacement satellites in the event of a loss or the degradation of its networks. At least not yet.

Planet has a steady assembly line of small Dove imaging satellites with a number on the shelf that could be launched to fill imagery gaps. NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) launches cubesats from the International Space Station to meet a number of customer needs. It’s not inconceivable that a similar mission for the Air Force or National Reconnaissance Office could be developed and deployed — temporary replacement assets on-orbit launched from an orbital platform.

Reconstitution should also include commercial capabilities and those of our allies. There are some capabilities that cannot and should not be offloaded to the private sector. Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), nuclear command and control, early warning, among others are inherently governmental capabilities for which there is no commercial market (nor should there be).  At the same time, international partnerships are critical to modern military operations, and this is equally true in space. We would be remiss not to include our allies’ assets for reconstitution of capabilities in the event of a loss or degradation.

We’ve been lucky as a country not to have had to develop these capabilities. As the dominant power in space, we’ve been able to pick and choose what we launch, when we launch, and how we launch. That environment no longer exists. On the nation-state front, the United States’ supremacy is being challenged by Russia and China. On the commercial side, the private companies are putting more and more assets into orbit and developing a near highway to space with launches occurring more and more frequently.

Ignoring these changes and maintaining the same mentality and approach to space acquisitions is like clinging to a beeper in the age of the iPhone — it puts you at a strategic, operational, and tactical disadvantage.

Rapid and responsive space reconstitution changes the dynamic in space. First, it increases deterrence by building a more robust space architecture. Today the architecture is reliant on a limited number of exquisite nodes. Our adversaries know and understand this — indeed they are planning to target and counter those capabilities.

By diversifying the capabilities, disaggregating capabilities and spreading them across a number of platforms, the posture changes. An adversary may hit one, but if we can replace it with an asset already on orbit or launch one within 72 or 96 hours, that impact is greatly reduced.

Second, it opens the doors on a number of capabilities — if a gap is identified, if can be filled quickly, rather than in two or five years. An adversary is conducting a major exercise? Launch a satellite to observe the movements.

It is vital that this language becomes, at the very least, a central planning point for the Air Force. National security space is witnessing a revolution in terms of innovation and opportunity. Failing to seize upon and develop this capability will leave us at a strategic and operational disadvantage.  

Joshua C. Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law Former NSA chief refutes report claiming Trump asked him to publicly deny Russia collusion Michigan college Dems sue state over voting laws, claim they discriminate against young people MORE Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.