WASHINGTON — The Space Force’s new commercial strategy is an attempt to kick off real talks with the private space industry about partnering on new business opportunities, a senior official said April 23. 

While the military has been buying bread-and-butter commercial space services like launches and satcom for decades, it’s still figuring out if — and how — it would actually put emerging offerings like in-orbit refueling to use.

“We talk a lot about space refueling, but we don’t really know what the case is for its military utility,” Lt. Gen. Shawn Bratton, deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs and requirements, said at an Atlantic Council event. 

Bratton discussed the thinking behind the Space Force’s commercial strategy that calls for the integration of private-sector technologies into military systems. 

Many questions have yet to be answered about how to employ new commercial space services, he said. The Space Force’s watchword is “understanding the art of the possible.”

Unclear business model

In-space refueling is a case in point. U.S. Space Command leaders have advocated for in-orbit refueling as a needed capability so operators can conduct satellite maneuvers without worrying about running out of fuel. 

While intrigued by the potential benefits of in-orbit refueling, like extending satellite lifecycles and reducing space debris, the Space Force is still unclear on the industry’s business model and whether the benefits of refueling would justify a larger financial commitment.

“It’s an area that is very immature,” said Bratton. “What we’re really saying is, ‘industry, lead us, we’re not sure what to make of this. We think there’s something there, but help us figure it out.”

The Space Force would want to see if a viable business model develops before going all-in on the capability, he noted.

Companies in the commercial sector are pioneering techniques to transfer propellant, xenon, and other consumables to satellites in space, extending their operational lifetimes. In-orbit refueling could reduce costs and debris by eliminating the need to launch entire replacement satellites when a spacecraft runs dry.

However, the refueling business model remains unproven at scale. Space Force leaders are willing to fund research and development projects, but are hesitant to make large commitments. In the case of refueling, the military wants to be a buyer, not the prime driver developing these commercial capabilities.

Questions from lawmakers

The Space Force’s future plans to buy satellite refueling services came up during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing April 16. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) asked Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman about a new $20 million funding line in the service’s budget for space access, mobility, and logistics:

“It’s only $20 million over five years. What’s your plan for this?,” Tuberville asked.  

Saltzman said the money will be used to “study, to figure out if there’s military utility. For example, if we’re looking at a concept called dynamic maneuvering, if we can have unlimited fuel in our spacecraft because we have the ability to service them in orbit, then we can have more dynamic orbits which are harder to target?”

“We really need to evaluate that to figure out if there’s serious military utility there before we invest heavily in a program,” Saltzman said. “We’ll have the answers to our basic questions on military utility, and then we can make a determination as to whether we need more funding.”

Space Force needs more clarity

At the Atlantic Council event, Bratton said Saltzman wants the strategy to help guide the Space Force towards greater adoption of commercial technologist, “and make ourselves maybe a little uncomfortable and go into new areas where we haven’t explored or we haven’t partnered with commercial as much,” he said. 

“I wouldn’t say that we know the answers or even have a crystal clear understanding of what the end state is,” said Bratton. “We want commercial to help us provide that clarity and see where we can go in some of these areas.”

The bottom line is “where are we willing to put our money?” he added. To answer that, “we’re trying to understand what’s possible from commercial. What makes a good business case for them?”

With regard to in-space refueling, “we think there’s value there, but we haven’t done a great job understanding the military utility,” Bratton insisted. “There’s certainly a lot of innovation out in the industry where they’re bringing new concepts that we hadn’t thought of. And I think we have the responsibility to sort of wring that out, not in a room by ourselves but with commercial partners who are helping us understand the technology and how it might be used.”

Some of the questions the Space Force will have to answer, he said, include: “Will refueling be part of the kit we bring to war? Does refueling make me more competitive in peacetime? Does it give me an advantage in wartime? Where’s the evidence that shows the difference that refueling makes?”

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...