WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s hesitancy to embrace the burgeoning commercial market for small satellite launches may undermine its space superiority in the next decade, according to the Atlantic Council.
In a report released May 5, the think tank focused on international security and global economic prosperity argues that the Department of Defense has failed to take advantage of commercial space services, despite advances in small satellite technology that have made them more affordable and capable.
“There is an established culture that ignores legislated ‘commercial first’ mandates, and that behavior has become increasingly detrimental to national security interests,” according to the report. “Over the last decade, this negative culture has eroded U.S. space superiority and will continue to do so as the world moves toward quickly developed and deployed low-cost commercial space systems.”
Space vehicles weighing under 1,200 kg are typically characterized as small satellites. Commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are projected to launch more than 20,000 satellites over the next decade, significantly increasing the capability — and traffic — on orbit. The growth is largely fueled by technologies that allow for lower launch costs, satellite mass production and increased spacecraft processing power. And the capability has application for DoD and intelligence community needs, including communications, imaging and navigation.
These technological advances have positioned commercial space capabilities to play a much greater role in the national security sector, including the war in Ukraine. Demand for satellite imagery and data to offer insight into Russia’s movements on the ground has highlighted the importance of commercial systems.
The report contends that the commercial space industry will play an increasing role in global space security and argues that Congress and the Biden administration must work together to ensure DoD and intelligence agencies adopt a “buy commercial first” strategy.
“Congress should direct the DoD and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to conduct a study to identify national security missions that can be accomplished through commercial space,” the report states. “Congress should then earmark funds for those commercial services. This action will force a transition to commercial space services, ensure stable funding for commercial small-satellite development and drive space innovation through competition.”
The report also recommends the Department of Homeland Security lead a study to determine if space systems should be considered a national critical infrastructure sector and suggests DoD, the Department of State and the Department of Commerce enhance diplomatic efforts to establish international norms of behavior in space.
While calling for changes to policy, doctrine and acquisition processes, the report acknowledges that both DoD and the intelligence community have made some strides in recent years toward integrating small satellites and commercial space capabilities into their constellations. For example, a fundamental premise of the Space Development Agency’s National Defense Space Architecture is that a proliferated constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit adds resiliency to DoD’s broader network of satellites residing in a range of orbits.
The Space Force last year initiated a new commercial space outreach effort dubbed SpaceWERX to invest in startups and small businesses developing new space technologies. The service has also embraced prototyping as a means for demonstrating the utility of commercial technology and is developing new ways to acquire systems more quickly.
The intelligence community has made significant investments in commercial imagery, with the National Reconnaissance Office spending about $300 million each year for these services to support military, environmental and disaster response missions.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.