You’re reading the SN Military.Space newsletter we publish Tuesdays. If you would like to get our news and insights for military space professionals before everyone else, sign up here for your free subscription.

HOT TOPICS: DoD space debate headed to Senate • Mattis: ‘We have to define the problem’• SecAF Wilson confident on schedule for future launch vehicle

SPACE FORCE The makeover of the military’s space cadre remains a contentious issue as the FY-19 National Defense Authorization Act advances through Congress.

The House last week passed its version of the NDAA by a vote of 351 to 66. The Senate Armed Services Committee sent its bill to the Senate floor by a vote of 25 to 2, and a full Senate vote is up next. Several space-related sticking points remain.

The House did not include language directing the Air Force to form a separate space force but lawmakers laid the groundwork in the NDAA for the creation of a space-focused branch of the service. The House Armed Services Committee, which has been spearheading the reforms, agreed to give DoD time to study the issue and provide recommendations. Nonetheless, it included language in the NDAA that creates a sub-unified Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command and a new numbered Air Force dedicated to space.

ADMINISTRATION PUSHING BACK The White House objected to the House space provisions, calling them “premature” because they preempt the ongoing DoD review of space organizations and management that was mandated in the FY-2018 NDAA. “Once complete, the Administration will review these findings and deliver the required report and consult with Congress,” the White House said in a statement.

MATTIS WEIGHS IN Speaking with reporters last week in Colorado Springs, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis repeated his cautious words. “I like having congressmen not just involved but digging into issues. That is in my best interest.” Mattis did explain why he opposes the FY-19 language as premature: Congress is trying to fix problems that may not exist, and it should allow time for due diligence. “One of the challenges right now is that we need to define the problem.” He credited the Air Force for maintaining a strong space posture despite a “lack of budgetary and strategic framework and support” in years past. “Somehow they were able to do it.”

The Pentagon is taking a fresh look at the problem, “and if an organizational construct has to change, then I’m wide open to it,” Mattis said. “We’ve got to solve space … but you have to break down everything from, ‘What is our strategy for space? What are our arms control? What are we doing to set the strategic framework there?’”

TROUBLED PROCUREMENT Yes, the Pentagon has to reform its acquisition process, but not just for space programs, Mattis said. Every service has problems, so this is a debate that can’t be just limited to space. Bottom line: “If we don’t define the problems right, we’re going to solve the wrong problems.” When DoD completes its review, “we’ll have this straightened out.”

RD-180 GONE BY 2022? The issue was raised at a recent Air Force budget hearing by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “Congress has consistently supported funding to rapidly transition from our current dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine for national security space launches while maintaining assured access to space as a matter of U.S. policy,” Shelby said, before directing the question to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson: “Is the Air Force on track to successfully transition the RD-180 rocket engine by the end of 2022?”

It was an unusually brief exchange. Wilson: “Yes, sir. We are.” Shelby: “So you feel good about that?” Wilson: “Yes, sir. I do.”

The Air Force knows the clock is ticking and it needs to decide what comes after the RD-180, which powers the Atlas 5 rocket from United Launch Alliance. The issue may not be settled for some time. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) is evaluating proposals from ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK for new vehicles that will be entirely U.S. made; and one from Aerojet Rocketdyne for a new engine that potentially could be used to retrofit the Atlas 5.

SMC is expected to award contracts this summer under the Launch Services Agreement program. Analysts have raised concerns that Air Force strategy to rely entirely on privately funded rockets may be too risky, especially amid concerns about overcapacity in the industry.

“I think we have a glut, too,” ULA VP Kent Lietzau said last week at the Space Tech Expo in California.

Orbital ATK aims to become a player in the Air Force EELV program with the introduction of the OmegA medium-heavy launch vehicle. But the company might have second thoughts depending on what happens in the next round of Launch Services Agreement contracts. “If we don’t win the LSA phase, then we would not proceed with the vehicle as defined here. It will be some different class of vehicle, because achieving the full range of EELV mission requirements is a very expensive undertaking,” said Michael Laidley, vice president for the OmegA program at Orbital ATK. “From our perspective, it’s going to look different if we don’t win the next phase.”

EUROPEAN DRONE TEST PROVES UTILITY OF SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS An industry team in Italy for the first time used satellite communication to fly a European medium-altitude, long-endurance drone. The goal was to show that the drone could safely fly beyond the range of ground-based radio coverage, or beyond radio line of sight. It could be the first step toward a future where remotely piloted aircraft are used to support public services, such as environmental monitoring, surveillance, and emergency management, officials said May 23 in a news release.

The test involved a European-built remotely piloted P.1HH HammerHead aircraft. Telespazio (owned by defense contractors Leonardo and Thales) and Piaggio Aerospace carried out the flight from Birgi airport in Trapani, Italy. It was a demonstration of how a two-way satellite communications network could be used in drone operations. Control data from the ground station was transmitted to remotely operate the P.1HH and its on-board sensors, while data collected by the drone during flight was returned to the ground station via the same network.

U.K. ROYAL AIR FORCE TAKING CHARGE OF SPACE The U.K. Royal Air Force is interested in using micro-satellites to improve the military’s space capabilities and resilience. Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Hillier told the Air Power Association’s Defence Space 2018 conference in London last week that lower-cost satellites with short development cycles should be considered as an alternative to traditional military satellite projects.

“The prospect of cost-effective constellations of small satellites being built, launched and replaced quickly is hugely exciting, providing us with the resilience that we seek,” he said. Hillier’s comments follow the recent release of the U.K.’s first Defense Space Strategy. With an increasing amount of military systems dependent on space technology, the MOD assigned the RAF Air Command responsibility for command and control of U.K. military space operations to defend the U.K.’s interests in space.

CANADA RAISES NEW CONCERNS ABOUT THREATS TO SPACE Canadian leaders are worried about space security to the extent that its Senate last year recommended the government of Canada declare satellites as critical infrastructure and move to secure these assets against potential threats.

In a new white paper, Canadian Global Affairs Institute fellow Charity Weeden highlights the necessity of deterrence, diplomacy, interoperability and modernization of space capabilities. “The government recognizes that the number of satellites, actors and debris in space is growing; nation-states are testing and investing in technologies to deny access to space; and the competitive nature of the space industry, alongside the growing need for spectrum with which to transmit data, is an important element to consider.”

So far, however, it is not clear how the government intends to defend against threatening activities, or how to assure mission success when space capability is denied, Weeden points out.


RISE OF CHINA’S SPACE INDUSTRY China becomes the third country (after the United States and Russia) to have a private company capable of independently developing liquid-oxygen/methane engines. While still not ready to compete with SpaceX and its Raptor engine and Blue Origin and its BE-4, LandSpace’s Phoenix represents a big step forward, analysts say.

‘SPACE’ ADMINISTRATION? The Commerce Department has released new details about its plans to create a “one-stop shop” for space regulations. The plan is to combine several existing offices into a new office called the Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration. The SPACE Administration will incorporate the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office and the Office of Space Commerce, currently part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The department was already planning such a consolidation of the offices, which would be moved out of NOAA and directly under Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

DARPA LEADS DISCUSSIONS ON IN-ORBIT SERVICING The Defense Advanced Projects Agency’s Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing operations, called Confers, held its first meeting May 21 in Marina del Rey, California. DARPA is bringing together companies involved in satellite servicing to define best practices and develop voluntary consensus-driven standards for rendezvous and proximity operations as well as on-orbit servicing. It will also tackle information sharing practices for proximity operations and satellite servicing. Data exchange, while essential for these activities, will pose challenges due to national export controls and corporate concerns about protecting proprietary information.

Not a subscriber? Let’s fix that.

Subscribe to SN Military.Space newsletter

* indicates required

SpaceNews Lists

SpaceNews Inc. will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices here.

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...