Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, speaks on a panel with a group of executives at AFA’s Air Space Cyber 2020. From left to right: Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance; Bruce Chesley, chief strategist of Boeing Space and Launch; Blake Larson, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Space Systems; and Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space. Credit: AFA

WASHINGTON — The United States is in a superpower competition in space and needs to work more closely with the private sector to ensure it has the most advanced technology, said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.

Thompson spoke on a pre-recorded panel discussion aired Sept. 14 at the Air Force Association’s Virtual Air Space Cyber Conference. In a conversation with a group of senior industry executives, Thompson said the establishment of the Space Force presents a “unique opportunity to think differently about how this service will work with our industry partners.”

The Space and Missile Systems Center, with an annual budget of about $9 billion, is the military’s largest buyer of space technologies. SMC is now at the center of a large reorganization of Space Force procurement agencies, and one of the issues it continues to wrestle with is how to work with private companies so industry investments help the U.S. better compete with China.

“Our adversaries, as you know, are aggressively taking steps that threaten the peaceful use of the global commons of space, and they’re leveraging their nationalized command economies to pursue that goal,” Thompson said.

“One of America’s greatest strengths, however, is the inventiveness drive and passion of our citizens, engaging in competition in a free and open market,” he said. “This is especially true in our space industry where we’ve seen a blistering pace of innovation over just the last decade.”

Thompson said the U.S. advantage in the “peer to peer competition is really our inventiveness, our agility in terms of speed to market and getting new ideas into the space capabilities ecosystem.”

The Space Force is its new doctrine document, for example, lays out future technology needs such as “responsive space launch” that would allow the military to put up satellites quickly, from multiple locations.

Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, said on the virtual AFA panel that companies need the Space Force to more clearly explain what it needs.

Part of the collaboration is “government articulating what they need so that industry can align its capabilities, its investments and look for commercial synergy with other customers,” said Bruno.

Another issue is that space capabilities can’t be achieved with a single product or by a single company. Solutions require complex integration and coordination, Bruno said. “We need to solve the entire problem … There’s a whole lot that goes behind an entire supply chain. There’s infrastructure behind it and there’s the ability to bring forward technology that will enhance and facilitate rapid response, and so we need to solve that entire problem.”

Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, said space programs require participation from a wide spectrum of companies. “In order to really meet the needs of the Space Force we have to have a very vibrant marketplace and supply chain that feeds everything,” said Ambrose.

Lockheed Martin has made multiple investments in startups focused on artificial intelligence, satellites and launch, said Ambrose. “We really encourage other investments in startups as we move forward to address these future threats in some ways probably we don’t even know about sitting here today.”

Digital engineering

Competing with rival powers requires more agile and less costly ways to design systems, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said. One of the headlines from Virtual Air Space Cyber on Monday was her announcement that future aircraft and satellites will be developed using modern digital engineering methods.

Barrett said digitally engineered aircraft and satellite will be designated with the “e” prefix. Digital e-planes or e-satellites will be end-to-end virtual models that are an almost exact replica of the physical system.

Air Force and Space Force programs, said Barrett, “will leverage the power of digital engineering to reduce design and testing time. In the future, more Air and Space Force acquisition programs will be using digital engineering principles to design, code and build systems.”

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...