WASHINGTON — The Space Force is eyeing innovative in-orbit refueling technology, but a key question lingers: is it worth the cost, especially when the military is considering a shift towards cheaper, disposable satellites?

The jury’s still out on the value proposition, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said at a House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee hearing April 30. 

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) pressed Saltzman about the $20 million allocated in the Space Force’s fiscal year 2025 budget for studying the military utility of space-based services such as refueling.

China already has demonstrated these capabilities,” Aderholt said, echoing comments made April 16 by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. 

Refueling holds immense appeal for expensive, high-value satellites in geostationary orbit, where replacing them can cost billions, Saltzman said. Topping them off with fuel could significantly extend their lifespan, making the cost of refueling a drop in the bucket compared to a whole new satellite.

However, the Space Force is looking to a future with a “proliferated architecture” — with networks of many smaller, lower-cost satellites in lower orbits, he said. These constellations would provide similar functionality, but with a redundancy built-in. If one satellite fails, others can pick up the slack. This very characteristic that makes them valuable might also make them expendable.

The challenge for the Space Force is to determine if the benefits outweigh the costs, Saltzman explained.

Concerns about demand signals

Defense budget analysts on April 30 expressed concern that the Space Force’s cautious approach to in-orbit refueling and other emerging commercial space services could have unintended consequences, such as impact on private sector investment.

The hesitancy from the Space Force about in-space services sends a mixed message, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Speaking at a National Security Space Association webinar, Harrison said investors need a clear signal of future demand to justify putting money into developing these new technologies.

“They say they are going to experiment a little bit, but they have no plan for whether or not they intend to use this in the future,” Harrison said. “What they are saying is, “we’re not so sure that there’s a market.’” 

“It’s highly risky to invest in something where the customer is saying, ‘we’ll give you a little bit of money right now, but we’re not committing to anything else in the long term,'” said Harrison.

Mike Tierney, head of legislative affairs at the National Security Space Association, said the Space Force has to balance fiscal constraints and pressures to foster a robust domestic space industry.

The $20 million funding line for space mobility and logistics is “frustrating,” he said, because it suggests the program is not important enough to deserve long-term funding. 

“But I’m not sure that is really accurate,” said Tierney. “I don’t know that they are going to walk away from that line.”

Tierney said the Space Force’s budget is under strain due to congressionally mandated spending caps so many programs are not getting the funding that perhaps the industry expected. 

However, the government has to communicate its future demands, Tierney said. “The market signaling is what I think is so important. You need to be able to communicate to your commercial partners that they have viable investment opportunities in order to be taken seriously.”

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...