A turf battle is brewing in the Pentagon over the possibility that the Army may want to buy its own satellites. Branches of the military historically have competed for control of assets such as tactical aircraft, ships and surveillance drones. The Army is now stepping into Space Force territory with a new effort to invest in what it calls a “tactical space layer.”
Generals like to remind audiences that the Army is the military’s biggest consumer of services from space. A typical brigade is equipped with over 2,500 GPS-enabled devices and more than 250 satellite communications terminals. As space technology advances, the Army is eyeing greater use of satellites to capture timely intelligence, to provide low-latency communications and navigation that is not dependent on GPS.
That message was delivered loud and clear last month when the Army announced the Pentagon approved a so-called “capabilities development document” for the service to pursue a tactical space layer. This doesn’t mean the Army is ready to go buy a constellation but the document gives the service the green light to conduct experiments and develop sensor prototypes.
Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said space systems are crucial for the high-tech battlefield where troops at all levels of command need access to data and tools to combat cyber attacks and GPS jamming.
Further, the Pentagon now wants ground, naval and air forces to be connected and share data, an effort called “joint all-domain command and control.” Space capabilities are needed to support that, Karbler said at a forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army.
The Army in recent years has deployed experimental cubesats but has relied on the Air Force, the intelligence community — and now the Space Force — for satellite-based services. Karbler said there are ongoing discussions with the Space Force about how the Army’s needs will be supported going forward.
The Space Force was spun out of the Air Force to give the military a dedicated branch focused on space. One of its responsibilities is to acquire satellites and other technologies for DoD.
The Army for years has complained about insufficient connectivity in the field. The Air Force conducted lengthy studies and pathfinder projects on ways to improve satcom but not much has changed.
The Army also wants more direct access to remote-sensing satellites. It typically takes hours or days to get images from intelligence and national security satellites. Units in the field chasing moving targets need data faster.
Another concern is the security of GPS signals for positioning, navigation and timing, or PNT. The Army wants alternatives so it has assured PNT when enemies jam GPS signals, said Willie Nelson, who runs PNT programs at Army Futures Command.
Getting approval for a tactical space layer is a “watershed event” and a strong acknowledgment of the need for space capabilities, Nelson said at a C4ISRNET event.
As the Space Force plans future investments, “we want to make sure our requirements are met,” said Nelson. “We want to work hand in hand with them.”
Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of the Space Force, told SpaceNews that the demand for satellite-based capabilities is growing across all of DoD and the Space Force wants to support those needs.
“Some people are jumping to the conclusion that the Army will build and fly their own satellites,” he said, adding that other possibilities are being considered.
For now the Army’s best hopes lie with the Space Development Agency. which next year will start deploying a mesh network of low-orbiting satellites that promises the connectivity soldiers crave.
The agency now reports to the Office of the Secretary of Defense but will move to the Space Force in 2022. “They’ve been fantastic allies,” Nelson said of the SDA. “They’re looking at surveillance, PNT, tracking, all the capabilities that directly impact how the Army fights.”
SDA’s director Derek Tournear frequently talks about the Army as SDA’s biggest customer. As he put it: “They’re the ones I work with most closely every day.”
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 2021 issue.