Building Blocks for a New U.S. Military Space Policy


Earlier this year the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama issued a thoughtful new military space policy. At the heart of the new national security strategy is the stated objective of improving U.S. space capabilities. Although it is articulate and well intentioned, specifics regarding how the administration plans to implement its new strategy have been a bit hard to find.

Innovation is the key to improving America’s capabilities in space. But innovating in a constricted financial environment is especially challenging. Yet it can be done — should hard decisions be made to terminate what we can no longer afford, to make room for necessary spending on new technologies and approaches.

Straightforward ways for the Pentagon to achieve this needed elbow room include: leveraging other military platforms in a comprehensive strategy for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for decision-making, or C4ISR D; partnering with commercial and allied service offerings; and pursuing a distributed architecture whereby capabilities emerge from the elements of a deployed capability.

Taking this approach means the administration must avoid the temptation to adopt a traditional costly, albeit comprehensive, space architecture that requires proprietary funding to support end-to-end capabilities. The key to saving money is leveraging other people’s investments, whether they are commercial or those of like-minded allied nations.

NATO systems and infrastructure, for example, include C4ISR D platforms that are essential for implementing an affordable and capable military space strategy. This mix of commercial and allied capabilities not only will drive innovation, it will achieve stated national security objectives by shaping a de facto distributed space architecture.

Overcoming stove-piped space programs and challenging the Air Force as well as the intelligence community to operate outside the box are crucial. Merely contemplating change is no longer adequate given the budget crisis we face today. Engaging in organizational innovation is at the heart of today’s technological innovation. Money can be freed up to support organizational innovation and core needs that emerge at the edge of overlapping capabilities.

First, we need to make difficult decisions of terminating long-favored programs and systems that provide redundant capabilities. The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is unaffordable, and the notion of two launch families being supported in a diminishing-demand-driven environment makes no sense. United Launch Alliance needs to become the “Un-united” Launch Alliance with one system emerging as the launcher of choice for the Department of Defense and intelligence community. The backup launcher for national security space is clearly at hand as well, namely the Ariane 5, operated from secure facilities in NATO allied territory. With 44 consecutive successes, Ariane 5 can provide a reliable backup service for U.S. national security payloads after one of the two launch families is eliminated from the EELV program. The EELV program would then enjoy reduced infrastructure and overhead savings as well as increased launch rates for the remaining launch system, increasing reliability while reducing unit costs through higher volume production and launch rates with a single team.

Second, the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) revolution needs to be put into context. Although the Defense Department seems willing to use undeveloped and untested SpaceX products, the reality is that when the department takes its unique satellites to a launch customer, it spends a great deal of time overseeing the relationship to ensure reliability. This requirement will make it hard for SpaceX to easily become the next EELV launcher. You simply don’t launch a multibillion-dollar satellite that took a decade to build on the Falcon 9 until it is fully understood, proven and has a demonstrated reliability.

But if this can happen, there is no reason Ariane 5 couldn’t provide a backup capability while the administration engages in innovation with SpaceX or other vendors able to deliver lower launch costs while ensuring reliability for exquisite and expensive national security payloads.

Third, money needs to be saved in part to continue support for a core robotic vehicle, which can provide top-end capability for the C4ISR D enterprise. The X-34B promises to deliver core breakthrough capabilities for the deployed warfighter and the insertion of force. The X-34B as an operating robotic vehicle provides capabilities not available with fixed-orbit satellites. But if savings are not found from the fixed launcher programs, it will be difficult to fund this breakthrough capability.

Fourth, space provides a significant contribution to C4ISR D. Yet the unmanned revolution as well as the fifth-generation aircraft are game-changers in providing data for deployed decision makers. And the role of hosted payloads in supporting unmanned aircraft has become evident in the Afghanistan operation. The new capabilities can provide a rethink about how to leverage commercial space, notably hosted payloads, in supporting air-breathing C4ISR D assets.

The role of proprietary military space becomes a default capability: What cannot be provided by the powerful conjunction of air-breathing assets and commercial satellite capabilities? The relatively un-agile Defense Department structure would then be put on notice to identify necessary programs that can interact with such a conjunctive capability, but provide unique and core capabilities unable to be generated by either air-breathing military assets or commercial space, notably the hosted payloads structure.

Savings would come from both sources.

First, the Defense Department would have to be creative in leveraging its investments in unmanned and manned aerospace assets. The deployment of the F-35 will provide game-changing capabilities that can be harvested to reshape the C4ISR D structure.

Second, the evolution of satellite capabilities in the commercial sector provides significant cost investments, which the Defense Department does not need to make. By shaping long-term contractual service relationships, the Pentagon can save scarce investment capital. But this requires it to think and contract long term — not one of its core competencies.

Such an approach facilitates a strategic reconsideration, which parallels what we are doing with fifth generation aircraft. The focus is upon distributed operations and shaping a honeycomb of decision-making supporting the deployed warfighter. This allows one to tap into the emergent thinking about shaping a disaggregated strategy whereby space policymakers look to focus on overall capabilities from the enterprise rather than a concentration of capabilities on single- point-of-failure platforms.

Disaggregation and distributed operations further highlight the opportunity to build smaller payloads and to operate across a variety of launch platforms. By reducing the cost of a launch failure and its impact on expensive and complicated satellites, innovation is enhanced as well. With the distribution of a diversity of assets across the space enterprise, and leveraging of commercial space and air-breathing assets, innovation and cost effectiveness are enabled.

Without such an entrepreneurial quality to managing the space enterprise, the Defense Department will remain stuck in the last century with diminishing assets and capabilities. Such an outcome cannot be in the national interest.

Robbin F. Laird is co-founder of the website c (, which deals with evolving global security and military capabilities.