Why a Space Force could be good for business

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Vice commander of Air Force Space Command Lt. Gen. Thompson: "We have to understand we’re on the cusp of an explosion in commercial space.”

WASHINGTON — In the contentious Space Force debate, many of the questions have been about its cost and whether a separate military branch would do a better job than the Air Force at defending satellites and preparing for a future conflict in space.

But not much has been said about what a Space Force could mean for business. Carissa Bryce Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, said the surging commercial space industry views a Space Force as a much needed nexus between the military and the business community.

“There is the potential benefit of being able to build a more integrated national and even international space community around military and intelligence space needs,” Christensen said on Monday at the Future of War conference hosted by New America and Arizona State University.

“We’re seeing billions of dollars of new money in commercial space driving innovations in small satellites and launch vehicles,” she said. “That community is not well connected to the military and the intelligence community.” If a Space Force can help bridge that gap, “we as a nation will benefit from that innovation,” Christensen said. “A Space Force could provide a focal point for building those relationships.”

Wallis Laughrey, vice president of space systems at Raytheon, said a Space Force could help better align contractors with DoD space needs. “In terms of representation of requirements, it’s absolutely exciting,” he said. “It’s something that will definitely help clear the air in some cases around the alignment of priorities and direction.”

Also speaking at the Future of War conference, Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said the military — whether there is a Space Force or not — should do a better job working with commercial space businesses. For a long time the DoD space community “has been a little too insular,” Thompson said. “Our challenge, in addition to the threats we see and our responsibilities to protect and defend capabilities, is to see and understand we’re on the cusp of an explosion in commercial space.”

From a military standpoint , Thompson said, “our job is to make smart bets and be prepared to leverage what is coming in the commercial market to our advantage.”

Christensen pointed out that companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon will attempt to build megaconstellations in low Earth orbit to provide cheap broadband services, and those capabilities could be useful to the military.

Thompson said he is “highly confident” that the military will rely on LEO constellations for services like communications and to monitor the planet for threats such as missile launches. But he said it’s too early to predict what telecom services or what companies might be the better choices for DoD. “We need to make smart bets, invest appropriately, track appropriately,” said Thompson.

“We will use proliferated LEO constellations,” he said. “It’s a question of what mission and what timing makes sense.”

Christensen said DoD has to change its traditional mindset about working with the private sector. Space startups, including some of the broadband companies, face tough odds, she said. “The reality is not going to be tens of thousands of satellites deployed or multiple commercial providers.” Much of the funding for telecommunications startups comes from venture capital that seeks high returns and accepts high risk. Historically venture funded companies fail at a rate of about three out of four, said Christensen. “Will any of these LEO systems succeed? It’s too early to tell.” Some of the megaconstellations are getting huge influx of funds “but there is still a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

From a military standpoint, what does that mean? she asked. “Does that mean I want no part of them?” That’s where the military has to rethink its acquisition process, Christensen said. DoD has to have more flexible procurement methods so it can adjust to the successes and failures in the industry. “Acquisition has to accept uncertainty as apart of the process and not as an anomaly that can be out-waited.”