U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivers a keynote Sept. 20 at the Air Force Association's Air Space Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit: DoD video

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said he’s open to funding new  space programs if Congress delivers on the military spending hike the White House has sought.

“In space, we need new starts in order to take advantage of what industry can deliver if we are willing to invest there,” Mattis said Sept. 20 during a keynote speech at the annual Air Force Association Air Space Cyber conference here.

Space is becoming a more dangerous military region, Mattis noted.

“In outer space,” he said, “we used to consider it a sanctuary.”

But now, he said, adversaries are challenging the U.S. in that domain as they are in others. “It is contested.”

One particular area that relies heavily on space-related systems is national nuclear deterrence and Mattis spoke of the need to maintain the robust capability. “We have to make sure that the war that can never be won is never fought.”

He pointed out it has taken only a decade for space, as well as cyber, to emerge as major warfighting domains. The U.S. military, he said, must move at a faster pace to keep up.

“If we fail to adapt at the speed of relevance, our forces will lose,” he said.

While securing enough money for that effort is important, he said, the problem in developing new space or other programs is more than a matter of funding. He implored Air Force officers and officials not to be hampered by “imaginary legal restrictions” in dealing with industry on developing more lethal ways of waging war.

When he first took over as defense secretary, he said, he set up a meeting with industry officials, only to be told he could not do that because he would be violating ethical rules.

Mattis said he told the lawyers, “These are Americans, too. The last time I checked they’re on our side.”

While federal procurement rules are set up to ensure all bidders have equal access to formal contract requirements, Mattis said it is fine for military officers and officials to discuss capability needs, potential technologies and other issues.

“You can talk to industry without violating ethical rules,” he said. “It’s important we open the lines of communication.”

Mike Fabey is SpaceNews' senior staff writer covering military and national security space matters. Mike previously covered as Defense News’ air and space warfare reporter in 2005 and 2006. Mike was an Aviation Week...