As the U.S. military deepens its technology development and sharing partnerships with international allies, a dearth of government standards for components and interfaces threatens to impede cooperation, according to the Space Force.

Chief Master Sergeant Ron Lerch, who serves as the senior enlisted leader for Space Systems Command’s Intelligence Directorate, said that while the issue is often raised by industry, it’s a growing concern from foreign allies as well.

“A common theme they’ve communicated when they engage with space systems command is that the lack of U.S. standards stymies their ability to build their own national systems that are meant to be allied by design, and thus they have no clear road ahead for interoperability,” Lerch said during an April 17 meeting of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board.

The board, which includes leaders from across the defense, business and education sectors, offers independent recommendations on Pentagon technology challenges, and is working on a report about the barriers to innovating with international allies. Concerns around a lack of U.S. standards in key technology development areas have arisen during the dozens of interviews the study team has conducted since last December.

In areas where the Defense Department wants to improve collaboration with international or commercial partners, standards like common interfaces and data formats are important to making sure systems are interoperable, Lerch argued.

He said the issue is especially pertinent in niche mission areas like in-space refueling, where the Space Force is considering partnering with commercial companies developing spacecraft that can gas up satellites that have run out of fuel. To move forward, firms say they need to know what types of refueling interfaces and ports the service expects to install on future spacecraft so they can make sure their equipment is compatible.

“If they commit, the possibility exists the government will later create a different standard,” Lerch said. “And if they wait, a separate commercial standard could emerge that was later then backed by the government, thereby locking it in.”

U.S. allies face this issue as well, he said, and sometimes opt to slow their own standards adoption until the Department of Defense chooses a way forward.

Lerch recommended that DOD work quickly to adopt standards free of intellectual property constraints, particularly for emerging technologies and mission areas.

“Having these in place will help us innovate domestically and, in turn, it’s going to enhance our allies’ ability to do so,” he said.

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.

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