Updated Jan. 19 with additional comments from DoD’s space policy office
WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense is pushing to lower classification barriers and forge closer partnerships with the commercial space industry, John Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said Jan. 17.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Plumb shared that Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks late last year signed a memo that “removes legacy classification barriers that have inhibited our ability to collaborate across the U.S. government and also with allies on issues related to space.”
This does not mean classification is going away, Plumb clarified, but it indicates that DoD is taking a hard look at where secrecy might have gone overboard. In some areas, he said, reducing secrecy levels could actually help to enhance collaboration with allies and private industry without compromising sensitive information.
Sharing information about space threats is at the core of a new DoD international space cooperation strategy, Plumb said. “Our network of allies and partners is an asymmetric advantage” as China and Russia threaten to disrupt U.S. and allied satellites.
‘Commercial integration’ strategy
Plumb also highlighted his office’s work on a new strategy for integrating commercial space capabilities into defense programs. The strategy will set a high-level vision for harnessing innovation from the private sector, he said.
The U.S. Space Force is also drafting its own commercial integration plan, but Plumb stressed that the two documents are meant to be complementary. DoD and Space Force officials are collaborating closely on the strategies and these are not competing efforts, he said. “Just to be clear, We are working together to develop these two documents,” Plumb added. “I met with the Chief of Space Operations [Gen. Chance Saltzman] several times to make sure that we’re kind of hand in hand.”
Both commercial strategies are still being reviewed. “We’re hoping that they will be released in the near future as we push them up through the building and get approval from the most senior folks,” said Plumb.
He described DoD’s commercial space blueprint as a “little more strategic, focused on the entire department and looking out to the future,” whereas the Space Force document is a “a little bit more focused towards acquisition.”
“I think the way we’ve been developing them together is going to be a nice combination,” Plumb added.
Plumb raised some concerns about a Space Systems Command initiative to create a so-called Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve of private-sector space services that could supplement military systems in a crisis or conflict. The issue is whether the Department may require a statutory change to allow for U.S. government backed insurance as currently exists for the air and maritime domains through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) and Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) programs.
“Space Systems Command has developed CASR in a way that is independent of additional statutory language, and so that’s the piece we’re struggling with,” he said.
In a statement to SpaceNews, Plumb said the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve is “an important effort by the U.S. Space Force to enable the integration of commercial solutions into our national security space architectures. My team and I have been regularly briefed by the CASR lead and I strongly support this initiative as part of a broader Department effort to leverage the innovation of the commercial space sector.”
“For the air and maritime domains, the U.S. government has statutory authority to provide government-backed insurance to commercial providers under specific circumstances,” he noted. “That does not yet exist for the space domain.”
Starlink a ‘remarkable achievement’
During the Pentagon briefing, Plumb fielded several questions from reporters about DoD’s use of SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites, especially in light of recent controversies surrounding CEO Elon Musk.
Plumb acknowledged that Starlink is a “remarkable technological achievement” that the Pentagon is eager to utilize. And because it was the first low-Earth orbit broadband system developed at global scale, it is now very dominant in that domain, he said.
The Pentagon would like to see more competitors challenge SpaceX, Plumb allowed. But for the moment, he said, “the department wants access to this kind of commercial innovation.”
“Part of what we emphasize in the commercial space strategy is how can we make sure that we’re harnessing all the different aspects of commercial markets,” Plumb stressed.