WASHINGTON — Two new U.S. space policy documents direct the Pentagon and civil space agencies to increasingly rely on commercial and foreign space capabilities, but experts say the relevant bureaucracies are likely to decide if and to what extent they will implement the directions.
The new documents reflect urgency by the United States to reinvigorate its space industrial base that for the past decade has seen a dwindling share of business on the international marketplace. They also have added fuel to the ongoing debate over what space capabilities the United States needs to own and operate and what capabilities can be shared with allies or purchased commercially.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama in June issued the first new National Space Policy since 2006. The Defense Department followed suit in February by releasing a National Security Space Strategy. The documents are similar in tone and describe the current space environment as congested, contested and competitive. Both seek to improve stability and security in space and maintain the many strategic advantages that space systems provide.
A panel of former government space officials on Feb. 10 agreed with many of the priorities outlined in the policy documents, including the need to modify the U.S. export control regime and to overhaul the cumbersome space acquisition system. The biggest point of contention was the extent to which the United States should collaborate with other nations on space systems and rely on commercial capabilities.
The United States does not realize how closely it is flirting with disaster in space, and the nation needs to make dramatic technical and cultural changes to avoid it, said Steven Huybrechts, vice president of government systems at Applied Minds Inc. of Glendale, Calif., and a former Pentagon director of space programs and policy.
A number of recent global changes make it essential for the United States to collaborate with other nations on new space systems, Huybrechts said. The Pentagon relies on a relatively small number of large, expensive satellites, and adversaries are increasingly capable of destroying satellites with kinetic attacks and nullifying capabilities with jamming and cyber attacks, he said. The U.S. space acquisition system is dysfunctional and generally takes more than 20 years to put new technologies on orbit, Huybrechts said. And the culture within the military and intelligence community is averse to making changes to benefit from the Internet, he said.
The United States should entangle itself with other nations in space because it would be much more difficult for an adversary to attack space systems owned by 10 nations than just a single nation, Huybrechts said. He used GPS to illustrate his point, even though it is a U.S.-owned system.
“I think it’s politically nearly impossible to attack GPS because global commerce, stock trade, banking, power grids, everything around the world depends on GPS,” he said. “So unless you’re in a World War III scenario where we just don’t care and nukes are flying, most countries aren’t going to want to [anger] the entire world just to get at the space systems the U.S. military is using in combat.”
Others disagreed with the notion of protective entanglement.
Peter Marquez, former director of space policy at the White House National Security Council, who led the drafting of Obama’s National Space Policy, said multinational space systems encourage rather than deter attacks.
“That is a false god that nobody in this room should worship. Entanglement as a deterrent is just a red herring,” said Marquez, now vice president of strategy and planning with Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.
Entanglement incorrectly assumes that every nation involved with a space system would work together to react if the system were attacked, and joint space systems would complicate the reaction to any attack that occurs, Marquez said. Rather, the intent of the National Space Policy was to augment existing U.S. space capabilities with commercial and foreign systems, Marquez said.
The United States already has gone too far in relying on space capabilities that it does not own and operate, and national space capabilities are deteriorating further each day, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert “Rosie” Rosenberg, who wrote the National Space Policy of 1978. Rosenberg argued that multinational satellite systems offer no benefit given the rise of terrorism and non-nation state actors. What the United States needs is a minimum set of space capabilities that it must maintain for itself at all times, Rosenberg said.
The U.S. military already relies on commercial firms to provide the majority of its satellite communications capacity, he said. Overhead sensing capabilities are increasingly provided by French, German, Canadian and Israeli systems, Rosenberg said. If the current trend continues, the United States will be beholden to other nations for its electronic and communications intelligence capabilities as well as its position, navigation and timing capabilities, he said.
GPS “is critical to our civil, commercial, economic and critical infrastructure,” Rosenberg said. “And to those of you who are Galileo lovers as the cost-reduction way ahead for position, navigation and timing, are we now ready to use [Russia’s] Glonass and [China’s] Compass for critical infrastructure support instead when Galileo evaporates?”
He was referring to Europe’s planned Galileo satellite navigation system, which has encountered numerous difficulties and will not be deployed anywhere near the schedule and cost originally envisioned.
Panelists agreed that the policy directives from the White House will have no effect unless the government departments and agencies that operate space systems choose to implement them.
“If the bureaucracy doesn’t find something in a presidential directive that they’re interested in, they will just slow roll it,” Rosenberg said. “Presidential directives and policies only get implemented when the departments and agencies see it in their best interests to use a phrase or paragraph.”
“At the end of the day, it may be a good document, but it doesn’t matter if the requirements and budgets don’t match what you say,” Marquez said. “The implementation of this stuff is important. The policy says the right things, [and] the National Security Space Strategy says the right things, but will that change and affect the requirements process and the budget process? That’s [to be determined].”