WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon was ordered to evacuate U.S. troops and civilians from Afghanistan in 2021, the military’s transportation command called up the nation’s commercial airlines to help with the evacuation. 

This was a rare instance when DoD activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF), a program set up by the U.S. government with commercial airlines to augment airlift capacity during emergencies.

The U.S. Space Force is looking at how to establish similar arrangements with commercial space companies that manufacture satellites, operate launch vehicles and provide services like satellite-based communications and Earth imagery.

The thinking is that if a conflict with a rival power like China broke out, the U.S. military would need help from the private sector to protect American space assets and augment DoD’s existing satellite-based services. 

“We are talking about how we’re going to expand our commercial partnerships during peacetime to ensure we have access to commercial capabilities during times of crisis or conflict,” said Col. Rich Kniseley, chief of enterprise requirements at the Space Systems Command’s space systems integration office.

The Space Systems Command, the procurement arm of the Space Force, calls this initiative the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserves, or CASR. 

“There are still a lot of things we need to figure out,” Kniseley told SpaceNews

Early conversations took place Feb. 9 and 10 at a forum hosted by Space Systems Command and the Space Force Association in Arlington, Virginia. Kniseley said 84 companies signed up to participate. 

Many details would need to be fleshed out, he said, including policies, statutes, contracting methods and technical issues. 

“We are talking about how we’re going to expand our commercial partnerships during peacetime to ensure we have access to commercial capabilities during times of crisis or conflict.”

Col. Rich Kniseley, chief of enterprise requirements at the Space Systems Command’s space systems integration office.

The Space Systems Command also is looking at what it would cost to implement a CASR program, and what costs the private sector would agree to absorb as part of a partnership. Kniseley said a funding proposal is in the works for fiscal year 2025.

“We want to start drawing out the framework for CASR for how we’re going to take those critical commercial capabilities and operate during a fight,” Kniseley said. “And this could be in the form of a surge capacity similar to how they work with CRAF.” 

The Space Force, for example, is looking at how it might work with small satellite producers and launch services providers on fast-turnaround missions under a program called Tactically Responsive Space. 

The CASR program would tap into existing space services, said Kniseley. “There are so many commercial capabilities out there, from satellite communications to space domain awareness, and commercial imagery, that we would look to partner with.”

Any public-private collaboration, he said, would take commercial interests into account. Under China’s central planning system, by contrast, the government directs the activities of private companies to meet national objectives. 

“In order for us to be successful in a China fight, it is going to be based on the partnerships that we have with our allies as well as industry,” Kniseley added.

When the next crisis will happen is impossible to predict so it’s best to make these agreements with industry during peacetime “so we’re ready to go before we get into a conflict.”

Kniseley said companies in the space industry are eager to support this effort. “That was evident at the forum,” he said. “But we do need to be realistic that there will need to be an economic investment in these companies that join the CASR model.”

As seen during the current war in Ukraine, “the fight is not going to be only with military space capabilities. It is going to be a joint fight with our commercial partners, and with our international allies,” he said. 

“A space model like CRAF has been in discussion for years, even before the Ukraine war, but what I think Ukraine highlighted is that commercial industry is very much invested in what we’re doing here in the Space Force to support the warfighter.”

‘Entirely new model’

Ian Eishen, director of global public sector at Aalyria Technologies, attended the CASR forum and is encouraged by the government’s efforts to bring new space companies into the program, he told SpaceNews.

Aalyria, a startup developing atmospheric laser communications terminals and software to manage networks, is participating in the Defense Innovation Unit’s hybrid network project and is looking to expand its reach in the defense market, Eishen said. 

“CASR is an entirely new model. They brought us in to help them design what this could look like,” he said. Although the CRAF approach is a good starting point, space is not the same as airlift, he added, so more work is needed to refine the concept. 

For a communications technology startup, the goal is to provide options to the government so it is not completely dependent on bespoke systems, said Eishen. 

The question then is “how do we exercise that on a regular basis?” he added. “We’re excited to see what they come back with. The action item for the government is to come back and let us know what they need us to do. And they’ve got a massive amount of partners that are ready to help them.”

Tom Barton, co-founder and CEO of another space startup, Antaris, also participated in the CASR forum. He said the company’s cloud platform could support satellite manufacturers helping the government ramp up production during a crisis. 

The company’s software is used to design, test and operate spacecraft, Barton said in an email to SpaceNews. “Our advanced simulation can also be used for scenario planning before real-world needs arise.”      

As far as contracting agreements, “I think there are a range of options the U.S. government could consider with new space players like ourselves accustomed to working with subscription and service models that meet the needs and urgency of customers on a case-by-case basis.”

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...