WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is prioritizing space like never before, assistant secretary of defense for space policy John Plumb said April 5.

Plumb, who recently announced he will step down after two years on the job, previously served in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, and he noted the stark contrast in how space issues are now being handled compared to a decade ago. 

Back then, space policy “was a hobby shop” and few people talked about space or discussed it in meetings, Plumb said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast meeting.

“Now space is constantly a topic at the White House and at the Pentagon,” he added. “It’s a very different situation.”

Rapid advancements in commercial space technology, coupled with the growing threat of adversaries’ space-based capabilities, have thrust space into the spotlight and is now viewed as fundamental to every aspect of national security, from communications to missile defense. 

Additionally, there is a growing number of nations and private companies with spacefaring capabilities, creating a more competitive environment. This spurred DoD to develop a strategy document released April 2 outlining how it would harness private sector innovation and integrate commercial space capabilities into military systems.

Plumb noted that various agencies across the military and the intelligence community have rolled out initiatives to increase use of private sector technology, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wanted a more comprehensive blueprint for the department to convey the message “that we have to move faster,” he said. 

DoD has traditionally moved far too slowly when it comes to space innovation, Plumb noted, often taking five years to develop requirements and up to a decade to field new satellite constellations that then remain in service for 20 years without any meaningful technology refresh — a pace that is unsustainable in the face of rapid advancements by competitors like China. 

To solve that problem, DoD has to leverage private sector innovation, Plumb added.

Unfinished business

As Plumb prepares to depart the administration, there remains a significant amount of unfinished business within DoD’s space policy office.

More work is needed to figure out how to work more closely with allies on space security and how to share intelligence with private companies whose satellites could become targets during conflicts, he noted. 

More broadly, there is a need to press forward with a space policy that safeguards national interests while fostering responsible behavior in the space domain. There are norms that the U.S. and other countries have adopted to prevent the creation of space debris, for example. “But norms are not treaties, they are not laws,” said Plumb. “More work is needed” in the realm of international norms and collaboration to establish clear rules of the road.

Surprising developments in space

Plumb highlighted two developments that surprised him the most during his time in office: the rapid rise of low Earth orbit satellite communications as a game-changing technology in commercial and military applications, and the pace of China’s advances in both space and nuclear capabilities.

As he prepares to leave DoD, Plumb offered a piece of advice for his successor: “Pick an area to focus on and push, push, push.”

“Results matter,” he said. “Find things where you think you can make a difference. Otherwise the building tends to spread you thin. You just go to meetings all the time but never actually accomplish things.”

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...