WASHINGTON — A top official at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit urged space industry executives not to underestimate the U.S. Space Force’s commitment to adopting commercial products and services, despite some lingering challenges.

“The Space Force may be the new kid on the block but they’re leading the charge when it comes to embracing commercial innovation,” said Steven “Bucky” Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, or DIU.

DIU is a Pentagon agency that works with the private sector. Its status was elevated last year in order to help the Pentagon gain more rapid access to commercial companies with promising technologies. The agency previously reported to the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, but now reports directly to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. 

Speaking Feb. 7 at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, Butow said the Space Force is opening doors and giving companies a chance to show what they can do. But he cautioned that the road to successful commercial integration within the Space Force won’t be smooth.

Traditional acquisition processes and complex Pentagon regulations still create hurdles for non-traditional procurements, he said. Additionally, military budgets often prioritize established “programs of record,” making it difficult to allocate funds to new initiatives.

The industry needs to be realistic about the challenges, said Butow, but insisted that the Space Force is serious about change.

Satellite imagery procurement

One initiative that appears to be gaining momentum relates to the procurement of satellite imagery from commercial companies, Butow said. 

“We’ve been fighting really hard for the Space Force to be an executive agent to be able to go out and procure commercial remote sensing information that would be used by all the military services,” he said. 

Military units typically don’t buy satellite images directly from private sector suppliers because imagery procurement is handled by the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Field commanders, however, want more direct access to images from the dozens of commercial satellites monitoring the planet, said Butow. 

It takes too long to get imagery through the intelligence community channels so the Space Force is trying to come up with faster options, he said. “In remote sensing, when you take a picture of something, its value decreases disproportionately over time,” Butow noted. If a customer needs an image now but ends up getting it hours or days later, “you’re not going to pay top dollar for that.”

“In national security, it’s about early indications and warning,” said Butow. “The earlier you know something, the more time you have to make decisions, especially if you want to have diplomatic options or have other ways of mitigating a disaster.”

Butow said DoD has a collaborative relationship with the intelligence community, “but that doesn’t mean that everything we do with the commercial space sensing crowd should go through the IC.”

With any data that touches the intelligence architecture, he said, “there’s a mountain of policy involved with getting it back out, and this is really problematic when we engage with partners from around the globe.”

In an ideal world, said Butow, the Space Force would “whip out a credit card and buy a commercial image from a commercial satellite company and use it in a tactical environment.”

Space Force commercial strategy 

Industry executives who spoke with SpaceNews but did not want to be named, said they hope to see more details on the Space Force’s plan in a commercial strategy blueprint currently being drafted by the office of Gen. Chance Saltzman, the Space Force’s chief of space operations.

“In remote sensing, this could be a real breakthrough, allowing commercial companies to work directly with warfighters to provide timely data from space,” one executive said. 

An initiative to procure satellite imagery is in the works by the Space Force’s Commercial Space Office, or COMSO. 

The Space Force is working with the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to ensure a framework that meets the needs of combatant commands without conflicting authorities. The military operates under Title 10 legal authorities covering tactical operations and activities, while intelligence agencies utilize Title 50 authorities governing strategic intelligence operations. 

“It’s about fusing data from all available commercial means to give warfighters an edge,” another executive said. 

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...