The U.S. Space Force is exploring the creation of a space equivalent of the civil reserve air fleet, or CRAF, a program the Pentagon conceived 70 years ago to gain access to commercial airlift capacity in an emergency.

The Space Systems Command, responsible for procuring space hardware and services, has been in talks with private companies about the initiative known as Commercial Augmentation Space Reserves, or CASR. The program would include satellite manufacturers, launch vehicle operators, remote sensing companies and other sectors of the space industry the government would need to mobilize during a crisis.

Col. Rich Kniseley, chief of enterprise requirements at the Space Systems Command’s systems integration office, told SpaceNews that a roadmap is being drafted based on recent discussions at a CASR Industry Day in Arlington, Virginia.

A civil reserve for space would mark a new level of collaboration between the military and the commercial space sector, a push led by Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of Space Systems Command.

Guetlein has been a proponent of using commercially available space products and services to fill national security needs and has directed his workforce to build ties with new space companies. The command set up a program called “front door” in response to complaints that it’s too difficult for commercial firms to navigate the bureaucratic maze of defense procurement.

If CASR is successful, it will make U.S. space systems more resilient, said Aidan Poling, research analyst at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The concept aligns with the Biden administration’s “deterrence by resilience” goals, he argued in a recent paper published by the Atlantic Council.

As the conflict in Ukraine has shown, satellites are now military targets, and all space assets will be in the line of fire regardless of who owns them, Poling noted. Combining government and private capabilities strengthens U.S. satellite networks and reduces the temptation for adversaries to mount an attack.

Chirag Parikh, executive secretary of the National Space Council, endorsed the idea of a civil space reserve. “We’ve got to consider commercial capabilities and how they operate not just now but also in a time of crisis,” he said at the recent Commercial Space Transportation Conference.

The next step for the Space Force, he said, is to think this through and figure out how to integrate government and private sector systems to provide seamless services to military forces.

Kniseley said he was impressed by the enthusiasm many industry executives expressed for the CASR program. He said some indicated they would participate out of a sense of duty more so than for the profit motive.

No matter how patriotic they might be, businesses have to make money, and the government will have to make CASR financially attractive for the industry.

Defense analysts Todd Harrison and Matthew Strohmeyer, in a paper published last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that air carriers are incentivized to commit aircraft to the CRAF program because it allows them to compete for regular airlift contracts — and their priority for bidding on task orders is higher the more aircraft they commit to CRAF.

The private sector historically has stepped up to support national security during crises, asserted Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command. In World War II, he said, most ships supporting the United States and its allies were not combatants but private merchant vessels transporting cargo.

“We’re always going to need commercial capability to meet national security needs,” Shaw said at the recent Space Mobility conference in Orlando.

But for the space partnership to work, the military has to communicate its expectations and articulate what is at risk. Space was previously not viewed as a domain of war, but that is changing, Shaw said, “and commercial systems will come under attack, so how are we going to approach that collectively?”

Shaw said these questions need to be answered sooner rather than later. “We don’t want commercial companies to run away as soon as the war starts. That would be a fail.”

Pentagon officials have already discussed establishing agreements to indemnify space companies for financial losses sustained in military operations. If CASR moves forward, the Space Force and DoD must find a sustainable model and create a contracting structure to compensate companies if they must displace commercial customers to provide surge capabilities to the government.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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...