WASHINGTON — Strengthening ties with foreign allies has been a key priority for the U.S. Space Force, whose leaders stress that securing outer space requires global cooperation

To that end, the United States has signed numerous intelligence sharing and data exchange agreements with partner nations worldwide. But collaboration has not usually applied to the acquisition of satellites or other space  systems. 

The Space Force is now working to advance collaboration with allies in development and acquisition programs, said Deanna Ryals, director of the Space Systems Command’s International Affairs Office in Los Angeles. 

The U.S. has conducted a handful of cooperative space projects with allies in recent years, but Ryals argues that collaboration should be expanded further given the investments and innovations being made by other countries in space technologies.

“As our allies develop their own national space capabilities, we have an opportunity to partner more closely than ever before,” Ryals said October 11 during a webinar hosted by Payload. “We’ve been discussing ways to jointly architect systems and build capabilities together to avoid duplication and ensure interoperability.”

Steve “Bucky” Butow, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio, said allied partnerships should be an imperative for DoD because of the diversity of commercial space technologies globally. He pointed out that commercial companies are motivated to innovate and serve the global market.

“Partnerships with the commercial sector provide a natural nexus for international collaboration since commercial technologies are often not classified,” Butow added. While some export controls may apply, working together through commercial partnerships would be easier than iin traditional military programs.

Butow suggested expanded teamwork is essential to building a strong coalition that can outcompete China. “The challenges we face this century will likely require closer cooperation with allies than ever before,” he said.

Seeking to expand alliance

So far in 2023, Ryals’ office has hosted visitors from 14 countries, most recently a team of space acquisition experts from the Republic of Korea’s Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration, and a German delegation of space operations planning officials.

The Space Force is trying to work with “as many international partners as we possibly can,” not just with the members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — that are the closest U.S. allies. 

“There’s a lot of work underway to figure out how we can lower the level of classification and open this up not only to the Five Eyes,” she said. 

Ryals said the Space Force for the first time will pursue discussions with allies on how to shore up space-industry supply chains in different parts of the world. “Can we help shape the resilience of the supply chain and make sure that we have a pathway to ensure capabilities are available to us?” she asked. 

“Every one of the countries that we work with on a regular basis are in the process right now of developing national space capabilities,” she said. “So how do we proactively work together on our acquisition plans to take supply chain resiliency into consideration as put millions of dollars against our national capabilities?”

Butow said bolstering supply chains is important as the space industry today is highly dependent on China for things like solar panels, batteries and microelectronics. “Part of why we need to diversify our collective supply chains is so we don’t have dependencies on folks who we may be competing against for the next few decades.”

Collaboration in space projects has not been easy

Despite a growing willingness to entertain joint projects with allies, there are significant barriers due to the complexities of programs and policy hurdles, said a recent report by the RAND Corp. commissioned by the Department of the Air Force.

RAND analysts reached that conclusion after reviewing three space programs where the U.S. collaborated and shared resources with foreign partners: the multinational Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications satellites; the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission in partnership with Space Norway; and an agreement to host a U.S. payload on Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) navigation satellites. 

In all three programs, said RAND, cooperative efforts ran into obstacles due to the “large size and complexity of the programs … and insufficient human resources in the U.S. Department of the Air Force to enable the level of space security cooperation envisioned by the strategy.”

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...