WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force in early 2023 floated the idea of establishing a “commercial space reserve” that would allow the military to quickly tap private satellite operators during a conflict.

Gen. Michael Guetlein, vice chief of space operations, said the Space Force is in the midst of figuring out how to establish such a commercial reserve, which will require intricate negotiations with satellite operators to hash out binding agreements.

Speaking April 24 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Guetlein said the military’s reliance on private sector contractors during past wars underscores the historical significance of its relationship with industry, and that dynamic that should extend to space operations through the envisioned commercial reserve.

“If you look at our industry partners from the Civil War all the way forward, our industry partners have always been there. And they’re always the ones that have pulled us out of the fire when the fighting got tough. They’re the ones that made sure we had all the material that we needed and helped take care of the homeland when we were deployed forward,” Guetlein said.

“So it’s not a new lesson that we’re learning. But it’s a lesson that has become more acute with space,” he added.

CASR program

Guetlein was an early proponent of what the Space Force calls the “Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve,” or CASR. 

He said efforts to implement CASR are moving forward, fueled by the realization that when the U.S. military goes to war, the commercial satellites it uses for communications, surveillance or other purposes are considered legitimate military targets. 

“Russia has said anybody in space is going to be a target,” said Guetlein. “So I can no longer say that’s a commercial asset. Don’t touch it. That’s an international asset. Don’t touch it. That’s a DoD asset. Don’t touch it. We’re all going to be operating in the same domain fighting for the same real estate, subject to the same threats.”

And if that’s going to be a new reality, he added,”then we’d better learn how to partner.”

CASR is modeled after existing programs like the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement that give the U.S. access to commercial air transport and sealift capacity from private companies.

The Space Force now has to figure out agreements with industry to make sure their services are available and accessible to the Department of Defense, Guetlein said.

China’s military integrated with commercial space

The Pentagon now views China as its most capable adversary, with an arsenal of space weapons that would be used to disrupt, degrade or destroy U.S. space assets. “They have the intent to deny our ability to use space, so that makes it a very real threat that we are concerned about,” said Guetlein.

Another concern for the Pentagon is that China’s government organization overseeing space activities has a close relationship with that nation’s commercial space companies. 

Since 2016, when the Chinese reorganized its military organizations to increase its focus on space, China has deployed 950 satellites, a DoD intelligence official told reporters at the Pentagon April 22. “That’s both military and commercial dual-use, and more than 470 of those are ISR dedicated platforms” for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. 

For the U.S. military, establishing a commercial reserve would ensure U.S. access to space-based services while incentivizing more private investment, officials have argued. But they are also aware that for commercial firms, signing such agreements with the U.S. government could complicate satellite operators’ ability to sell capacity globally if their fleets were prioritized for the Pentagon.

Saltzman supports commercial reserve

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week, Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, voiced support for the CASR program.

“It’s about how rapidly we can expand and augment our capabilities in times of crisis or conflict,” he told lawmakers. “A lot of the pre-work, the planning for how we will integrate, the contractual work that needs to be done with the companies to make sure that we’re primed to execute at the speed of need is really what is at the heart of the CASR program.”

“We have to do the work ahead of time, account for it in planning, see what the requirements are, which of those requirements can be met by the commercial industry, and then start talking about contract negotiations before we even actually sign a contract so that we are ready and primed to put that excess capacity in place when we need it.”

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...