A central debate in the U.S. national security community concerns what technologies and capabilities the United States will need to remain the dominant space power — and how to acquire these new systems as quickly as possible.
The U.S. Space Force has the task of figuring out the path ahead. Officials say they envision future space systems will be part of a diverse architecture with satellites of many sizes deployed in different orbits. And they have recognized that most of the technologies needed to support this architecture — the spacecraft, payloads, launch vehicles, ground support equipment and software systems — will be privately developed.
A concern for the Space Force is to make sure it clearly communicates its needs to the industry, and to establish connections with companies that are investing in key technologies the military wants. Many of these companies are not familiar with the defense procurement system and may not have channels to reach government buyers as do established Pentagon contractors.
With these issues in mind, the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Innovation and Prototyping Directorate is starting a new effort to inform the space industry on the military’s future needs.
“We have to modernize the space architecture into what we think we’ll need 10 years from now,” said Maj. Vinny Pande, satellite prototyping program manager at the Space and Missile Systems Center.
Pande recently spoke during a virtual meeting of the Space Enterprise Consortium, known as SpEC. The consortium was formed by the Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, three years ago to build ties with the burgeoning commercial space sector. Currently, more than 350 companies are members of the SpEC.
Under a project called “Space Vision 2030,” members of the consortium will be asked regularly to submit ideas and concepts for the future national security space architecture.
These will not be solicitations that will lead to immediate contract awards. But companies still have an incentive to participate so they can make themselves known to space buyers and position themselves to compete for future business.
“Space Vision 2030 will be a recurring dialogue between SMC and SpEC partners,” Pande said.
“There is an increasing realization that industry has a role to play in this,” Pande added. “We need help to identify and mature technology that the government originally was not focused on.”
A notional space architecture, according to charts presented to SpEC members, would focus on three key priorities: space superiority (having access to space and freedom to maneuver); strategic operations (space assets to communicate, command and control during a nuclear war); and tactical operations (space systems that directly support battlefield commanders).
Companies will be invited to submit concept papers on topics such as space domain awareness, cloud computing applications for improving space system resiliency, and satellite propulsion technologies for making spacecraft more maneuverable.
This is just the beginning of a yearslong conversation that SMC wants to have with the private sector, said Pande.
“Industry has advocated for understanding where SMC and the Space Force are looking to go so they can align with their goals,” he said. The Space Vision 2030 project “will give industry an opportunity to better understand what technologies we’re trying to leverage.”
Members of Congress have frequently criticized DoD’s entrenched procurement system as difficult for commercial companies to penetrate. The House Armed Services Committee, in its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, says the Space Force needs to find new ways to leverage commercial technology.
The committee noted that one of the motivations for the establishment of a Space Force was to address the poor performance of traditional space acquisitions often outpaced by innovative commercial space companies.
If this language makes it into the final NDAA, the Pentagon will have to brief lawmakers on the “challenges commonly encountered by nontraditional space new entrants and pathways to resolving those challenges.”
The SpEC consortium should be able to provide some insight.
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 July 13, 2020 issue.