U.S. expansion into the high frontier of space has proven to be critically important to global security and economic growth. Commercial space assets are an essential element of U.S. national defense plans and operations and serve as an economic growth multiplier through communications, position knowledge, Earth observation, and combinations of those capabilities as an enhancement to traditional terrestrial economic activities.
The expansion of commercial activities to the western frontier and across oceans was paced by the U.S. Government’s ability to provide enabling transportation infrastructure, security, and legal frameworks. In short, the U.S. government created a more predictable and secure environment where terrestrial and naval exploration and commercial activities could flourish.
As the world leader in space, the U.S. government finds itself once again at a moment in history not dissimilar to earlier U.S. expansion as an ocean-going nation or into the western frontier. Thus, it is imperative for the U.S. government and commercial space ventures to enhance collaboration and coordination to secure the high frontier for freedom’s sake.
The recent exponential growth in private sector investments in innovative space companies underscores the need for a greater focus on the role of the U.S. government in promoting, protecting and defending the free world’s economic and security interests in space.
The sheer number of commercial systems being deployed in space affords the U.S. government the benefit of enhancing resilience through redundancy and proliferated constellations. A Euroconsult global 2021 forecast projected 17,000 satellites being built and launched by 2030. The forecast indicated that well over half of those satellites will come from the commercial space sector. This compares with Euroconsult’s 2015 global 10-year forecast of 1,400 satellites being built and launched.
This growth in commercial space systems offers the free world a greater number of platforms for monitoring the Earth as well as hosting payloads and other capabilities to enable enhanced space awareness, protection, and security. Architected properly through government and commercial collaboration, these platforms can contribute to a critically needed “space security infrastructure” beneficial to both the U.S. and the free world’s security and economic growth.
Over the last several decades, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community have made significant strides in utilizing commercial space-derived data, products and services. Commercial satellite communication services, launch services, and Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/ IR), hyperspectral, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data acquisition and services are examples of the U.S. government benefiting from commercial space activities.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the benefits of leveraging commercial space capabilities to promote international security and transparency. The increased use of commercial space services to augment national space security capabilities clearly serves U.S. political, military and economic interests.
Not surprisingly, U.S. commercial space systems have also become prime targets for America’s enemies. Adversaries have reacted to our increasing reliance on space by developing capabilities to challenge U.S. and the free world’s space systems and operations. We see this today in the jamming and cyber-attacks on U.S. commercial space companies and systems involved in supporting the Ukrainian military.
A key step in addressing this increasingly contested space environment must be the deployment of a more robust set of space domain awareness (SDA) capabilities. SDA enables anticipating, identifying and calling out adversaries’ bad behavior, promotes a stable and peaceful space environment, and helps facilitate effective on-orbit operations. Yet today’s U.S. government SDA capabilities are woefully inadequate. Fielding a robust combination of government and commercial SDA systems is feasible and affordable and must be given urgent attention by the Biden Administration and Congress.
More broadly, the U.S. government should take a more proactive role in partnering and coordinating with the commercial space sector to field a more resilient and defensible integrated architecture of bespoke government solutions and commercial space systems.
The design of commercial space systems is primarily based on investor-driven business cases focused on private sector markets. Accordingly, the level of protection and hardening of commercial systems often does not sufficiently address U.S. government needs for sustained operations in a highly contested environment. As the U.S. government increases the use of commercial space services as part of a “hybrid architecture,” it must address the potential risk associated with reliance upon less hardened and protected commercial space systems.
With increased U.S. government adoption of commercial space services comes associated purchasing power and influence as a substantial customer to help enhance the resilience of commercial space assets. Key to this is the U.S. government acknowledging the value of, and co-investing in, enhanced protection in these hybrid systems. This should include multiyear services contracts, where a competitive commercial marketplace leverages the government market while ensuring reasonable returns on investment. Such collaboration will yield opportunities to engage with commercial space ventures earlier in their product and services development cycles to understand and potentially influence system and architectural designs.
Establishing an integrated space security infrastructure (appropriately balanced between U.S. government and commercial systems) also hedges against revanchist powers’ continuing rejection of Western-driven norms of behavior in space. A sound international framework for predictable commercial space activities is critically dependent on a robust space security infrastructure. In short, commercial space activities will thrive in a predictable and stable environment, enabled by close coordination between the U.S. government and commercial space companies.
Various means and methods are available for the U.S. government and the free world’s commercial space ventures to collaborate in designing and implementing a more integrated space architecture. With commercial Earth imaging companies, the U.S. government has made significant strides in providing stable long-term funding and contracts for EO imagery. It is also expanding relationships with commercial SAR imagery providers to provide a more predictable market for SAR data, products and services. This effort by the U.S. government follows decades of similar activities in the use of space-based communication services.
Another highly successful example of government space leadership and coordination with commercial industry is the U.S. government provisioning and support for the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation in support of U.S. security interests and private sector applications. U.S. government support for GPS has had an enormous impact on expanding global economic growth and providing critical safety capabilities for first responders and key commercial industries such as commercial aviation and military applications.
Going forward, enhanced cooperation and collaboration could also include: • Provision of advanced funding commitments (such as anchor-tenant arrangements);
- Relaxation and refinement of regulations that are detrimental to the international competitiveness of U.S. commercial space companies;
- Government-Furnished Equipment for space security infrastructure improvements;
- Government funding for hosted payloads;
- Increased liability protection (indemnification) and potential war damages compensation;
- Possible establishment of a Civil Reserve Space Fleet (akin to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet) to assure access to commercial space capacity during contingencies or crises; and
- Formalized mechanisms for sharing information on foreign space and counterspace threats, including secure mechanisms for strategic information-sharing on extant and emerging threats and exchanging relevant time-sensitive data and analytics to help protect and defend on-orbit operations. This must also include greater information sharing as it relates to cyber threats from state and non-state actors as well as assistance in adopting best practices for hardening commercial space systems, communications links, and networks from cyber-attack.
The free world’s adversaries are already vigorously pursuing their own space interests as they deploy space and counterspace systems and conduct destabilizing operations that jeopardize space sustainability. They see, and are acting on, the critical importance of future space-based activities as part of the intensifying strategic competition with freedom’s allies.
The DoD and IC have adopted “Hybrid Architectures” that seek to leverage commercial space capabilities and have taken other steps to serve as a stable, predictable and substantial customer for commercial space data, products and services. This will provide a strong foundation for enhanced cooperation with a broad range of commercial space companies on a more secure space infrastructure. But more can be done.
Working together, the U.S. government and commercial space companies can help assure a secure and prosperous future while furthering freedom’s expansion in space.
James Frelk previously served as director of the Office of Space Commerce at the Department of Commerce and as deputy associate administrator at NASA. Chris Williams serves as chair of the Moorman Center for Space Studies at the National Security Space Association.
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.