Op-ed | How the U.S. can quickly build greater resiliency in space

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Congress needs to signal it accepts the value of making mistakes in a “fail fast” mentality

Vice President Harris’s chairmanship of the first National Space Council under the Biden administration earlier this month is a welcome step toward a whole-of-government approach for securing the space domain for the U.S. economy, military and civil society. Such an approach is urgently needed, as the last two months have shown: China conducted a hypersonic glide vehicle test and Russia created thousands of pieces of debris through an anti-satellite missile test

The enabling policy framework released by the space council directs the Department of Defense to “accelerate its transition to a more resilient national security space posture.” While this direction is welcome in the halls of the Pentagon, the devil is in the details – and there are plenty of them when it comes to manifesting broad policy guidance into architectural solutions that are programmed for DoD and funded by Congress.

As leaders across government work through these details, here are several principles they should embrace. 

Speed to development

Speed is a critical element of success in this enterprise. Endowed with a congressional mandate to “go fast” in space acquisition, the Space Force is showing signs of living up to that charge. The Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile-warning system just passed a critical design review. The Space Development Agency (SDA) continues to innovate and instantiate new architectural concepts, support new foundational technologies necessary for resilient space architectures as witnessed by their investment in optical intersatellite links, and find ways to work with nontraditional companies making space entries. Meanswhile, the Space Enterprise Consortium known as SpEC OTA continues to grow both in membership and funding profiles to the benefit of Space Systems Command and the space industrial base. 

Be willing to make mistakes

While the above-mentioned work bodes well for those of us waiting for the DoD to accrue tangible successes in space acquisition, success is never guaranteed. Which is why Congress needs to signal it accepts the value of making mistakes in a “fail fast” mentality. Far from sanctioning failures, this approach delivers powerful results in the private sector, and Congress should apply it here to create a conducive environment for real innovation, creativity and calculated risk-taking. 

China and Russia will continue to pose significant threats to our space systems, from cyber intrusion techniques to kinetic destructive ASAT tests.  Our goal should not be to keep pace but to outpace them in both our technical ability and our international responsibilities. A zero-risk approach won’t yield the leap-frog capabilities we need. 

Answer the mail to Congress 

Congress has been asking for fundamental changes to this since before the Space Force was established and has not been satisfied with the lack of progress. Now that DoD can point to several successes, it is time to weave these data points into a space acquisition reform that produces consistent success across the entire space enterprise.  

The Space Force remains at a fulcrum point. The service has demonstrated limited success but has not been able to shift that momentum into the transformation that Congress is demanding.  Now is the time to figure out what’s right and develop a flexible acquisition system that embodies that framework. 

Understand not all risk is created equal

Part of the decision calculus for reforming acquisition programs and processes is the correct identification and mitigation of risk. Not all risk is the same. Policy, programmatic and technical risk are all different and must be mitigated according to their respective impact on the overall objective. 

Sometimes that looks counterintuitive – like higher price tags upfront to facilitate competition, speed up production schedules, and meet the system requirements at the speed necessitated by the adversaries. Sometimes it looks like balancing the integration of new technology with good enough capability for faster deployment. For example, to detect adversaries’ new technological developments – hypersonic glide vehicles, for example – hybrid architecture assets in geostationary Earth orbit are still required. 

One technical risk that should be heavily weighted is cyber intrusion. Protected connectivity that facilitates enormous data transfer rates needs to be a priority, whether that’s optical comms or comms that bridge between orbits, airborne and terrestrial assets.  

Whatever it looks like it needs to be identified, understood, and revisited throughout the program to ensure the right balance of all available resources. 

Reason for hope

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks represented DoD at the National Space Council meeting, a fitting role as she is DoD’s senior leader who heads the Defense Management Action Group – the body responsible for resource management and planning, programming, budgeting and execution of the DoD.  Having a DoD official at the National Space Council who is ultimately responsible for the successful programmatic implementation of that guidance gives even this old wizened space nerd a new hope. 

Sarah Mineiro is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former staff director of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.