On National Security | Big hurdles for small satellites in the military market

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 14, 2018 issue.

The Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wants to disrupt the military space business. Its next move will be to demonstrate that cheaper commercial satellites hosting military payloads can replace much more expensive custom-built spacecraft the Defense Department buys for missions like surveillance and communications.

DARPA Director Steven Walker. Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Michael Pausic
DARPA Director Steven Walker. Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Michael Pausic

“We have pretty capable small satellites,” DARPA Director Steven Walker told reporters earlier this year. “We have been saying this for 10 years: We want to see a shift to LEO [and] get capabilities in larger constellations.”

DARPA has invited commercial space companies to pitch ideas under a program called Blackjack. It asked bidders for satellite concepts with a price tag, including launch, of less than $6 million. Final proposals are due June 6.

Walker said projects like Blackjack have the potential to become catalysts for faster innovation and lower costs in military space programs.

Projects like Blackjack, however, are anomalies in the $9 billion-a-year DoD space portfolio. The bulk of the market is owned by a handful of huge companies that the government hires to build satellites, install ground systems and provide launch services.

SpaceX has been a rare case of a commercial startup rising to the ranks of “big space contractor.” Most newcomers face huge barriers, as incumbents go to great lengths to secure the status quo. To this day, government program requirements often are written in ways that favor incumbents.

“Legacy companies have large Washington offices and teams of lobbyists petitioning the government,” said Charles Beames, executive chairman of York Space Systems. Beames is a retired Air Force colonel who served as a space procurement official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. He now runs an industry group called the SmallSat Alliance that advocates for commercial manufacturers and data analytics firms.

The two-year-old alliance of about 40 companies is trying to challenge top contractors’ dominance of defense and intelligence community space programs.

“Most small satellite firms don’t have their man in Washington,” Beames said.

He worries that the “small satellite” label can be a double-edged sword. Some government leaders appreciate the fact that small satellites can bring nimbleness and resilience to space capabilities, but the money mostly goes to the big players. “I don’t like the term ‘small.’ It implies it’s inferior,” Beames said.

He is trying to push the message that higher prices don’t equate to more capability. “With small satellites, for 1 percent of the cost of a large military satellite you get 60 to 70 percent of the capability,” he argued. The cost savings alone should compel DoD to rethink investments to equip the space force for a future fight.

“I’m not saying all defense missions can be done with small satellites,” he said. “But some missions like communications and surveillance could be done with a handful of satellites that cost $10 million to $20 million each. Why can’t DoD create a competitive market to give best value to taxpayers?”

“We advocate for prototyping. We advocate for ‘real competition,’” Beames said. Much of what the military needs — sensors, buses, ground links, data analytics tools — is available from commercial vendors. “How do we get DoD to ‘buy’ what it needs, instead of ‘developing’ what it needs?”

A new group of senior leaders at the Pentagon gives Beames a glimmer of hope. Notables include Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper. Both have expressed a desire to shake up the status quo.

The drumbeat heard from top officials is that U.S. dominance of space is under attack. “We made an assumption that space would be uncontested. And many of the systems that we put into space were not resilient,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told lawmakers. “In the budget this year and, really, starting last year, we have started to invest in a category we call ‘space resilience,’ which is a variety of things.”

The question for many is whether these planned investments in space resilience will be business as usual or mark the beginning of a new era.


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.