The U.S. president’s direction to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, to establish a sixth force — a space force — caught most by surprise. Naturally, the social media universe started making references to “Star Wars,” “The Expanse” and other science fiction mainstays.
The fact is, conflict in space is already occurring. Satellites and their ground systems are jammed, dazzled and subject to cyberattacks, but it doesn’t get a lot of coverage. Our architecture is vulnerable to these threats, and we’re not in a strong position to deter, respond or ameliorate the effects. We are not resilient, and our adversaries know it. China and Russia accelerated their efforts to the point that many senior officials believe the U.S. has lost or is close to losing our strategic advantages in space.
If we want to build a truly resilient architecture, we need to seize upon the innovation that is occurring today and develop a portfolio of options to meet the challenges in space. It’s a fairly simple equation — innovation plus options equals resiliency.
For years now, many within government paid lip service to this reality. Studies were commissioned, research published and statements about the need to increase our resiliency in space released. The problem is the Air Force hasn’t (until recently) done much, if anything, to address this reality. Key leaders within the Air Force rightly declared that “space is a war-fighting domain,” but those below them in the acquisitions and planning offices didn’t seem to get the memo. The National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, builds and operates classified reconnaissance satellites, for its part has been publicly emphasizing resiliency for several years.
Yet, the Air Force and NRO continue to largely buy the same systems based on the same requirements, launched on largely the same platforms to do the same missions. At the same time, commercial technology continues to evolve and challengers have entered the space arena with renewed vigor.
It is as if the U.S. government is keen to buy those ‘80s brick cellphones when you and I are buying the next-generation iPhone each successive year. Those brick phones may work, but how relevant are they in today’s smartphone environment?
Take launch, for example. Were it not for a savvy lawsuit by SpaceX, the United States would continue to have only one player for national security launches — United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. For more than a decade, ULA was the single industry source for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, mission that launched all Air Force and NRO satellites.
ULA provided a reliable capability but couldn’t compete in the commercial market, resulting in very high launch costs. SpaceX sued to gain access to the bidding process for launches, won an out-of-court settlement and now offers a much lower cost alternative for national security missions. Blue Origin also plans to field a commercially competitive heavy-lift rocket that could meet the Air Force’s and NRO’s needs.
An uncomfortable truth is that ULA’s Atlas rockets rely on Russian RD-180 engines to power them to orbit. You didn’t misread that — Russian rocket engines, manufactured by a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, power some of our national security payloads. Thankfully, Congress weighed in and mandated that this needs to stop by 2022. With multiple domestic launch alternatives, there is no excuse to place our national security in the hands of an adversary.
On the small-launch side, Virgin Orbit is set to begin flying Launcher One; and Rocket Lab has its Electron rocket (”It’s Business Time” — a clever name for the mission). Add these emerging small-launch systems into the mix, and you have a robust, responsive launch portfolio that can deliver payloads from small cubesats to heavy school bus-sized satellites to any number of orbits at lower costs.
Congress seems to be starting to understand the need to get launch right and embrace commercial innovation. In the latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act, several changes — if approved — are steps in the right direction. First, the EELV program will be renamed the National Security Space Launch Program.
It seems simple, but eliminating the “expendable” portion opens the door to reusability. It directs the secretary of defense to “pursue a strategy that includes … reusable launch systems” and outlines a process that if those systems are excluded, an explanation is required. Reusability promises to further reduce launch costs since all or a portion of a rocket is recovered and reused. SpaceX has been launching previously flown Falcon 9 boosters since 2017, while Blue Origin is designing their New Glenn booster to be reflown multiple times.
It’s critical that we begin considering the other components of the space enterprise — what we put in orbit and how we can leverage the burgeoning commercial space sector. There are of course missions that the private sector cannot and should not meet. Sometimes the laws of physics will mean that there is only one capable platform. Still, it is not an excuse for the status quo, especially as we can see what is being developed on the cutting edge.
The Blackjack program by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will explore the capabilities of large constellations in low-Earth orbit. SpaceX, OneWeb and others are starting work on large constellations as well that could offer global broadband and enhanced communications capabilities — a potential game-changer for military connectivity and an increase in resiliency.
Innovation is happening on a daily basis, and we have options. We just need to find the will to move ahead and achieve true resiliency in space through a robust launch portfolio and capabilities that fully leverage the work of the commercial space sector. Failing to do so will leave us vulnerable, and that’s unacceptable.
Mike Rogers is a former U.S. congressman who represented Michigan's 8th District. He served as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011-2015. He is the David Abshire chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.