Op-ed | Pentagon finally embracing the idea of buying ‘good enough’ space solutions

by
Private sector advances put the Space Development Agency in a position of strength due to its vision of acquiring capabilities quickly

At the Defense Department, as is the case in many organizations, the old way of doing things has a tricky way of hanging around.  But it’s only a matter of time until enough agents of change converge to allow evolution to take its course.  

When it comes to space, perhaps the biggest change that will drive a cultural shift is the advancement of private industry. The record level of private investment in space — $8.9 billion in 2020 despite COVID — and forward-thinking from industry leaders have enabled the development of small satellite constellations that now cover a vast array of capabilities for the U.S. military and are providing tangible benefits already.  

From daily commercial satellite imagery providing intelligence and surveillance, to small satellites beaming internet connectivity to remote locations, industry innovation has pushed the Department into a position of having no other choice but to adopt a hybrid approach of traditional and new space systems.  

These private sector advances put the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency in a position of strength due to its vision of acquiring capabilities quickly. SDA’s approach to buying commercial technology undercuts the notion of needing to adhere to traditional acquisition processes.  

Despite ‘Development’ being in its very name, SDA’s founding director Derek Tournear has openly proclaimed that SDA does not want to do a lot of tech development.  The genuine opportunity today, unlike years prior, is the availability of commercial-off-the-shelf low-cost satellites that can be tweaked slightly to accomplish military missions.  A menu of options to buy rapid capabilities in space previously did not exist. But today there is no shortage of systems or space companies able to step forward and deliver.   

Going back to the early 2000s, there were significant challenges in convincing military leaders to embrace a cultural change that would allow DoD to acquire and deploy smaller space systems faster.  Given the decades-old acquisition and requirements process, it is no surprise there was resistance to change and repeated calls inside the building to abandon the original “good enough” vision.  

The current geopolitical and technological landscape — competition from near-peers in space, an embrace of innovation by military leaders at the top, and a private industry space renaissance — fits with SDA’s responsive, “good enough” approach to solutions in space.

For years, there had been a false sense of security that space assets were untouchable; but the realization that space systems were vulnerable led to growing calls for a “responsive” architecture.  The People’s Republic of China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in 2007 that not only demonstrated a capability and willingness to destroy an asset in space, but also the fact that additional debris would endanger other existing assets in orbit.  Despite this growing awareness of threats, reluctance persisted in the building toward embracing and resourcing an alternative approach to space acquisition.      

When Congress established the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office at Kirtland Air Force Base in 2007, the objective was to “demonstrate, acquire, and deploy an effective capability for operationally responsive space” utilizing “responsive satellite payloads… low-cost launch vehicles… and responsive command and control capabilities.”  

Some policymakers at the time believed that smaller satellites could be built faster and cheaper to supplement the existing satellite architecture in the event of malfunction, collisions or adversary attack.  Although this position may sound reasonable, ORS received significant pushback by leadership in the Pentagon and was slated for termination in 2012 and 2013. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) went so far as to delay the confirmation of the nominee to become Secretary of the Air Force until lawmakers received assurances that the Pentagon would preserve the office.  

The ORS office gave an early boost to the idea of a “good enough” responsive and resilient low Earth orbit space architecture now embraced by SDA.

During Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he declared that Chinese and Russian space activities present “serious and growing threats” to U.S. national security interests.  This year’s Space Threat Assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that Russia conducted several anti-satellite tests in 2020 and that these activities reflect a “pattern of behavior” in which Russia has continued to develop and reconstitute its counterspace capabilities. 

Meanwhile, the general public in the U.S. grows more reliant – and more aware – of space every day.  Arguments for having an agency like SDA dedicated to reconstituting space capabilities quickly will only grow stronger as threats continue to rise.     

Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s first vice chief of space operations, said the speed of acquisition must be increased and recently acknowledged that ”maintaining program delivery timelines of the recent past will not outpace the threat. We must go faster.”  

The sense of urgency for embracing space technology is real, and leadership from military brass is critical to a fledgling agency like the SDA dedicated to moving faster and buying new technology for space. Per congressional mandate, SDA will be reorganized under the Space Force next year. How it maintains its autonomy under the Space Force remains to be seen, but in terms of moving faster and buying “good enough” solutions in space, that will survive.

Tony Samp is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute specializing in emerging technology and national security. Samp is a senior policy advisor at the DLA Piper Global Law Firm and was previously lead advisor to Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), then-ranking member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.