The most significant challenges currently facing the national security space enterprise are not engineering or technical in nature, but human, says a new report from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress’ National Security Space Program.
“The processes by which the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) acquire and field capabilities, the attitudes toward risk, and the speed at which the bureaucracy moves are stymying efficient and effective integration of emerging capabilities,” states the report.
The issues are not limited to the Air Force or NRO, says the report, but rather are endemic to significant parts of the defense and intelligence bureaucracy “with some key pockets being important exceptions to the rule”.
Continuing the ‘Space Race’
The historically relatively benign environment for U.S. space operations has fundamentally changed. Russia and China, among others, are developing and fielding significant counter-space capabilities, and are also expanding the scale and capabilities of their own space assets to support terrestrial operations. This is occurring at a pace that the report says is, in some cases, approaching parity with the United States.
The report continues that in order to outpace America’s adversaries, the United States needs to radically rethink the way it approaches national security space from acquisition through mission assurance and on-orbit operations.
It recommends the U.S. Government should fundamentally change the way space acquisitions are made— changing from a product to a service by committing to the expansion to a significantly larger and more diverse low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation that can service a broader range of intelligence, military, and other government needs; and developing a faster and more robust launch cadence based on an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) model to support a significantly larger LEO constellation, as well as a more robust maintenance and refresh rate for the constellation.
According to the report, the expansion of the LEO architecture and the increased launch cadence will also result in, and necessitate, a larger and more robust satellite manufacturing industrial base.
Under such an ID/IQ model for space, launch providers would be assessed against an agreed-upon set of criteria and awarded a base contract and subsequently compete for launch task orders based on price, unique differentiators, or capabilities. The report authors believe this approach will provide better value for the government, increase competitiveness within the launch market, and deliver more flexible and agile capabilities for the U.S. Air Force and the Intelligence Community.
“By changing the launch cadence and taking advantage of emerging small satellite capabilities, a transition away from large, expensive legacy satellites can occur. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for the exquisite capabilities that these vehicles can deliver—the limits of physics prevent some requirements from being met by smaller, less capable assets—however, given the development of significant counter-space capabilities by both peer and non-peer competitors, relying solely, or even primarily, on such assets creates significant exposure and challenges. What is needed is a smart balancing of existing and legacy systems, with new and emerging architectures.”
The report also calls for the U.S. Air Force to develop a robust rapid reconstitution capability, including through the use of commercially available capabilities and leading-edge technologies, to ensure that adversaries will not be able to degrade, disrupt, or destroy a significant portion of America’s critical space-based national security capabilities.
“This reconstitution capability will be enabled, in significant part, by the reorientation of America’s space posture to include a broader, more robust constellation at LEO that incorporates emerging capabilities, a significantly expanded launch manifest, and a diversified portfolio of commercial partners.”
The commercialization of space
In addition, the report authors want to see the U.S. Government take a proactive posture towards and with commercial space, working to identify early opportunities for cooperation and integration to remain on the cutting edge of innovative capabilities.
“Technological innovation in key areas related to space, including sensors, computing, and communications, is happening much too fast and too broadly for the government to be purely reactive; the government must work to identify these trends earlier, even helping shape them through seed- and early-stage investments and basic research by entities like DIU, In-Q-Tel, DARPA, IARPA, and the various national labs.”
The report says the government must likewise engage with new providers who are developing novel and unique capabilities that can be shaped early to provide significant national security benefits and be more swiftly integrated into the existing architecture. This also means that commercial companies should be more broadly integrated into ongoing exercises and conflict scenarios.
“There are, naturally, some roles that should not be delivered solely by commercial companies. Nuclear command and control, for example, ought never be outsourced to a commercial provider (and never would be). At the same time, however, key elements of communications, imagery, remote sensing, high speed satellite-based broadband, among others, could well be provided by the private sector at increasing levels.”
Finally, the report says the acquisition and mission assurance calculus employed by the government needs to fundamentally shift from being purely focused on the specific launch vehicle and payload to a broader, more holistic consideration of the capability being delivered to warfighters and intelligence operators.
“Here again, the optimization and synchronization of launch, satellite manufacturing, and ground segment integration is critical. Acquisition and mission assurance need to be more flexible, agile, and take into consideration the state of reusable and small launch capabilities.”