Chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force Gen. B. Chance Saltzman speaks Apr 13, 2023 at Planet’s Explore conference with chief strategist Robert Cardillo. Credit: Planet

WASHINGTON — As space technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, the role of commercial industry in national defense has become a hot topic, the chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said April 13.

Saltzman spoke at the Explore 2023 conference hosted by the satellite imagery provider Planet in a fireside chat with the company’s chief strategist Robert Cardillo.

Many within the Space Force are asking how the military can take advantage of the latest innovations from the private sector while also meeting their specific requirements, Saltzman said. He noted that finding the right balance is no easy task. 

The Space Force’s partnership with the commercial industry “is one of the most important relationships that we have to make sure we get right,” Saltzman said.

But he acknowledged that buzzwords are thrown out in military procurement and it’s not often clear what they mean. “What exactly is commercial augmentation that can kind of roll off the tongue?” he asked.

Saltzman was referring to programs where the Space Force is considering using private-sector capabilities for additional resilience, for example.

Companies in the space industry manufacture hardware and many provide services like data from satellites, but it all gets lumped together as commercial capabilities. he added. “Are we talking about the traditional acquisition relationship where the commercial sector builds a satellite and we buy it and we fly? Or are we talking about commercial services more like the way the launch industry provides a service? Are we talking about data? Are we talking about outsourcing functions like collision avoidance in space?”

Need ‘hardcore analysis’

The Space Force has more work to do “clearly identifying the various ways that commercial capabilities can augment and then doing the real hardcore analysis on what is an inherently military function for the Space Force? What’s a governmental function? And what can we leverage partners to perform for us?” Saltzman said.

That might seem straightforward, he said, “but you really start asking the questions, it really is more complicated than that.” The Space Force needs to gain better insight “so we can make the right kinds of decisions to get the right kinds of services, like data augmentation,” he said. “That’s kind of what we’re focused on.”

Cardillo said companies in the business of providing data from space would like to see the government put to use the analytics and insights that data can provide. 

“This room is filled with people that are thinking constantly about upgrading their technology, solutions and approaches in ways that advance their competitiveness, because that’s how the market works,” Cardillo said. 

Saltzman said the industry should continue to “push the envelope.”

“It keeps opening our eyes up to other possibilities and then it’s our job in the government to say how do we take advantage of that?” he said. “There is no question that we are rethinking all of the models associated with acquisition and procurement.”

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...