When Deanna Ryals joined what was then the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in 2012, her focus was on building partnerships with international allies — specifically around satellite communications. She is now director of the International Affairs Directorate at what is now Space Systems Command. Her office’s mission spans the service’s entire portfolio, including SATCOM, weather, and missile warning and tracking.
Ryals says the directorate aims to serve as a “front door” for SSC’s work with international partners and to ensure that as the command develops and acquires new systems and architectures, it does so with allies in mind.
She recently spoke with Defense News sister publication C4ISRNET about the evolution of the office, opportunities to partner with allies on new missions and how international cooperation can improve resiliency. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Your office’s initial focus was on partnering with allies on satellite communications capabilities. How did that go?
We built the focus on SATCOM international partnerships, starting with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program. We built those international partnerships with Canada, the U.K. and the Netherlands, and then later we added Australia. Wideband Global
SATCOM was the other big international program that I worked on way back in the day. I worked on the partnership between the U.S. and Australia, and also the big multilateral partnership that included Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and then later the Czech Republic and Norway.
Those were some of the early focal areas for international cooperation here, but the realization was those partnerships were really valuable in looking at how to make sure we have an integrated space capability that the
U.S. Defense Department and our allies can use. And then bringing partners into acquisition planning and discussions early really allows us to think about how we can do more together with our partners. If we all think about the problems together, we can then build on bringing systems to bear that meet all of our national needs and requirements.
How did your work expand beyond its early SATCOM focus and into the broader mission it has today?
The next big thing we did was a partnership with Norway to look at hosting a SATCOM payload on a Space Norway bus. That was sort of the next evolution beyond pure SATCOM and having the partners buy into the system — could we leverage a partner’s national space capability and add something to it?
In that instance, we added a payload, and it saved us from free flying the satellite and paying for the launch ourselves. So now we had partnered with another, where we could share those costs and we didn’t have to build a lot of the capability ourselves. We could rely on somebody else.
From there, there was a broader understanding that the work that we were doing in SATCOM really could be applied to just about every mission area that we have here at Space Systems Command. Why can’t we partner in space domain awareness or missile warning/missile tracking, or weather, or electro-optical sensing — any of those things — in the same way that we did SATCOM? So that’s when we first started talking about broadening the scope of international relationships with partners into all the different mission areas. Then it’s finally culminated with the standup of SSC International Affairs, focused solely on building those international partnerships.
Has your office changed with the transition from the Space and Missile Systems Center to the standup of Space Systems Command last summer?
Prior to the stand up of SSC, I was a part of the portfolio architect. The portfolio architect’s office at the time had that portfolio architecture work and also had innovation and partnerships as a part of that broader team.
With the standup of SSC, [Commander] Gen. Guetlein really wanted to elevate the international affairs element of what we do here at the command. So now I’m a direct report to the commander as opposed to being in with one of the other program offices. I’ve got a voice directly to the commander on the opportunities that are coming from an international partnership perspective, and we are sitting at a level where we can inform all of the other organizations — the program executive officers, the Space Systems Integration Office and everyone — on those opportunities.
As you expand into new mission areas like missile warning and space domain awareness, what are the challenges that come with that?
The biggest challenge is culture. There is a cultural shift that needs to happen, and we’re seeing it slowly happen. But very much on the U.S. side, in particular, there’s a cultural predisposition that if it’s not built by the United States, not built by the United States industry, then it’s not a trusted asset.
We’re in the process of doing a lot of work to change the mindset and the culture. What’s really hindered us from doing more with allies and partners is culture. Much of our documentation is marked as not releasable to our international partners and allies. We’ve built programs from the beginning assuming that we wouldn’t export it or we wouldn’t share it with anybody, so when it comes time to share capabilities, we’re really in a situation where it’s either too hard to change to share, it’s too expensive to change to share, or just culturally, there’s not a desire to want to share with our partners.
That’s changing with the senior leadership perspectives — acknowledging the fact that we can’t go it alone and we don’t want to go it alone. We have to move into an allied mindset, really pushing on those boundaries. But the impediment of culture is still going to be there for a long time.
We have to make sure our users get comfortable with the fact that they may be operating on a U.S. communications satellite today. In a conflict, that asset may go away. We want to be able to shift quickly to the next closest asset, which might be a U.K. communications satellite or a French communications satellite or somebody else’s satellite.
And we want to make sure we’ve built in the infrastructure to be able to make that shift, but also built in that cultural understanding that we are going to rely on our allies and partners for some of these capabilities going forward.
You previously talked about the need for space systems to be “allied by design.” Can you explain what that means and why it’s important?
It’s really ensuring that as we look to build that next capability, we build it knowing we are going to share it with international partners or we’re going to plug it into their systems or pieces of the architecture of which they’re going to be a part. We have to build those capabilities from the ground up, from the requirements all the way through system development with an assured mind that we are going to share this.
We’re going to plug it into somebody else’s system, so we want to make sure that we’re doing our system design in a way that allows for that. If we have to protect certain elements or certain capabilities within the system, then let’s build that in from the beginning. It really forces us to think about what those interfaces and standards look like.
How are you working with international partners to develop common interfaces and data standards?
A big area we’re working on with our allies is looking at data standards. How do we make sure that as we’re all collecting information and data that we’re collecting it in the same ways so that we can share the information?
Data standards is a big thing that we’re working on. Just within the United States, the DoD is coming up with common data standards so we can all ingest data together and then share those data standards with our international partners, and so that we can ingest data from them as well.
It doesn’t mean every partner has to have the same data standard or the same data format. But we’ve got to have some way to get to a common translation of that information so that we can all share it.
SSC is a co-chair with Germany on something called the Capability Architecture Working Group, which is a part of the Combined Space Operations initiative. Under CSpO, there’s a Capability Architecture Working Group primarily focused on space domain awareness as well as space command and control, and how the seven nations that comprise the CSpO initiative get to common interfaces and standards. How do we get to data sharing, data transport, data utilization that can provide really solid and very trusted information that can go into all of our national operations centers, that can give our operational warfighters the data that they need to make decisions?
How does the work you’re doing to partner with international allies help make DoD architectures more resilient?
From a strategic deterrence perspective, the more partners you have together ... that’s a level of deterrence that we build. [We’re] messaging to the world that we absolutely intend to build capabilities together, we intend to build resilient, interoperable systems with our key allies and partners, and that we’re doing that with a purposeful mind so that we do have resilience in the architecture.
If you take an asset out over here, we’re going to quickly move to one of our allies’ assets. And if that one’s not available, we’re going to the next one. We build that deterrence and that resiliency into the architecture from the very beginning. And not just the United States, but our international partners are developing their national capabilities with that same mindset.
We have to be focused on the threat. If we look around the world and see what’s happening right now, there’s a common sense across our international partners that the threats are real and that we are better if we’re working together to get after those threats. We can go a lot farther together than we can individually.
So a focus on threat, a sense of urgency to deliver capabilities as fast as possible, is a common thread throughout all of our international partners. We’re working really closely together to make sure we’re staying focused on the threat. We’re looking at everything we can to make sure our space architecture is allied by design.
What opportunities are there to bring allies and partners into the space elements of the DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control efforts?
Our biggest element of support to the JADC2 structure is in data. It is making sure we can share data and information with our allies and partners. It’s making sure that we have transport layers that are available to all of us to move information and share information. It’s making sure that we have, again, data formats and data standards and things that allow us to share the information. That is one of the biggest things from a JADC2 perspective that we can do — just be able to share information. And that’s one area that we’re hyper-focused on right now to get that right.
One of the other things we’re working on is software and how we make sure we’re deploying the same software tools in each of our national space operations centers, so that information that comes out can be shared more easily and can be assessed, and the decision-makers all have the same tools to make those decisions when it comes time to do that. That’s another element of JADC2 that we’re going to be able to bring to the fight.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.