The recent release of Defense Department and Space Force strategic blueprints for the use of commercial space technologies has been met with cautious optimism by the industry. While acknowledging the importance of these vision documents, some executives remain concerned about the lack of a concrete roadmap.

Both documents offer a compelling vision for collaboration, but the strategies only highlight the intent to leverage commercial space capabilities and don’t detail how that will happen or commit funds, noted Ellen Chang, vice president of ventures at the consulting firm BMNT.

Chang, who advises space startups that work with the U.S. government, said many companies have been eagerly awaiting these strategies, seeing them as important to unlock investments in the burgeoning commercial space industry.

However, she said, it’s unlikely that these high-level guidance documents will trigger an immediate overhaul in military space spending or a shift from established defense contractors to commercial ventures.

Other executives agreed that they would like to see more concrete action plans.

“Instead of more strategies and plans and visions, how about more doing?” industry consultant Keith Masback wrote in a social media post. “Follow through on commitments. Flow money. Fix the Valley of Death. Hold the services and agencies accountable to do the same,” he added.

Todd Master, chief operating officer of the Earth imaging firm Umbra, said aligning funding with the strategy’s intended effects is key. “Releasing a strategy on how and where to use commercial space capabilities to strengthen our defense is a fine start, but unless the strategy is aligned with the defense budget, the intended effect cannot be realized,” he wrote.

Master highlighted the challenges of driving change within the Pentagon bureaucracy. “I fully appreciate that policymaking and budgeting are two separate functions within the DoD. But if they are only executed in their own stovepipes, each can claim ignorance of the other, working directly against the intention to move faster.”

“The DoD is like an aircraft carrier — large, immensely capable, but difficult to maneuver quickly. Changing course isn’t easy or fast — but once you do, the impact is tremendous,” Master noted.

No silver bullet

To be sure, when the Space Force released the commercial strategy on April 10, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman cautioned that it was not going to be a “silver bullet” solution and was “likely to disappoint some people.”

“It is not a panacea. It does not provide all the answers,” Saltzman stated. “But I do think it frames the discussion that must take place. It sets the conditions for productive collaboration, and it starts the critical processes needed to accelerate the purposeful pursuit of hybrid space architectures.”

A dominant theme in the strategy is the concept of hybrid architectures — where the Space Force will combine U.S. government assets, allied contributions, and commercially developed systems.

Saltzman warned industry executives to keep their expectations low. “If you read this strategy expecting to see the answers to the most challenging problems of commercial integration, you will be disappointed,” he said. “If you are expecting the document to outline how much money is available for us to dole out for each mission area, you will be disappointed.”

Industry analyst Chris Quilty, speaking April 10 at the Space Symposium, said the strategies published by DoD and the Space Force should be a message to companies “that the government can be a partner.” However, “we will have to see how the government actually executes on that, which is the challenge, and the degree to which commercial entities lean into that work.”

For the Space Force, the release of the strategy marks a new chapter in military-commercial collaboration, said Lt. Gen. Shawn Bratton, deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs and requirements.

“We wrote it to hold ourselves accountable,” Bratton said April 23 at the Atlantic Council. “We’re eager to get feedback on the specifics of what’s working and what’s not,” he said.

While the Space Force hopes the commercial strategy catalyzes positive change, Bratton said, the real proof will be in “where we spend our money.”

This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...