On National Security | SmallSat Alliance steps up push for a military comms ‘outernet’
A legislative proposal in the 2023 defense spending bill calling on DoD to leverage commercial space networks marks a victory of sorts for the SmallSat Alliance.
As its name indicates, the alliance is an industry group that advocates for greater use of small satellites, particularly by the U.S. government. Its focus over the past few years has been on the idea of a “hybrid space architecture” — or the integration of commercial smallsat and large satellite constellations with government and defense communications systems.
The group first floated the concept at the 2019 Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. Three years later, the notion of hybrid space systems is gaining traction across U.S. defense, intelligence and civil space agencies, said Steve Nixon, president of the SmallSat Alliance.
“At Logan, we sat down and hammered out the first draft of a hybrid space architecture statement of principles,” Nixon told SpaceNews. Following that meeting, “we started circulating the statement, and it progressed up the chain to agency heads and congressional staffers.”
The statement’s central message is that networks combining government and commercial systems help boost national and economic security. To address military concerns about cybersecurity, the hybrid architecture would rely on “variable trust” techniques that give some users more access than others.
Although the message has been catching on, the industry still has work to ensure government programs and budgets shift in that direction, Nixon said.
The effort turned a corner last month when the House Appropriations defense subcommittee in a spending bill expressed support for “efforts to leverage commercial space networks to create an ‘outernet’ for future military communications.” The House Armed Services Committee included similar language in the defense authorization bill.
The term outernet also has been embraced by the Defense Innovation Unit, a Pentagon organization tasked to bring commercial technology into military systems. DIU has taken the lead in prototyping a hybrid space architecture to deliver secure internet connectivity to commercial, civil and military users. Also participating in the project are the Space Force’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“Hybrid space communications is the next great leap forward, representing the convergence of the information age and the space age,” said DIU.
The Space Force in 2020 endorsed the concept of an “enterprise satcom” network of military and commercial satellites, but DIU’s plan goes even further. Although DoD buys services from commercial firms, these systems operate separately from military networks. In a hybrid setup, communication would flow across disparate government and commercial systems.
For the smallsat industry, a move to hybrid systems would be a huge win as it would validate the role of small satellites both in government and commercial networks, Nixon said. “For years, there’s been this battle between the large satellite crowd and upstart small satellite crowd, and we’re just never getting anywhere.”
The industry is now watching what comes out of the SWAC, which has been studying options for space-based communications and modeling architectures with additional layers of satellites to increase network resilience.
“That study is now complete and being briefed around town,” said Nixon. The SWAC also will analyze future needs for space-based navigation and intelligence. “All the studies that are either completed or underway are all pointing toward hybrid architectures.”
But there are still roadblocks ahead. “Pretty much everyone at leadership levels wants to pivot in this direction. That’s really not the question. It’s really more about the devil in the details, and what is this exactly going to look like,” said Nixon.
Industry hopes DoD will move sooner rather than later, given the uncertain economic climate and fears that venture investors are getting spooked. Nixon said the future of many companies in the smallsat sector is tied to the government’s commitment to tap commercial space.
With so much uneasiness in the financial markets, Nixon said, “if investors don’t see the government stepping up to the plate as a good customer, that’s the danger.”
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 August 2022 issue.