C4ISRNET Conference panelists detail a new space race

A few weeks ago, senior military decision makers and leaders joined industry thought leaders and executives in Crystal City for the annual C4ISRNET Conference. This year’s event was the 18th annual conference and, as in years past, the focus was on the networks and IT systems that are making the military more connected, aware and capable in-theater.

While much of the discussion at this year’s conference was focused on new, disruptive technologies the government and military are looking to embrace on-base and in the field – including mobility, IoT, AI and Big Data – there were two other incredibly poignant and important trends identified that are occurring in space.

These trends were identified and discussed during a panel discussion entitled, “Capitalizing on the commercial space renaissance.” The panel was moderated by C4ISTNET Editor, Mike Gruss, and featured a list of space experts, including:

  • James Comfort, Principal Deputy Director, Geospatial Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate, National Reconnaissance Office
  • Col. Steve Butow, Space Portfolio Director, Defense Innovation Unit
  • Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director, Secure World Foundation
  • Pete Hoene, President and CEO, SES Space and Defense

What were the trends? The first was the advent of a new space renaissance, and the second was the potential resurrection of the Space Race, which dominated headlines and stretched the imaginations of people around the globe for a large part of the 20th century.

Let’s look at each of these trends individually, although they are inherently linked.

A new Space Race?
it was just a little more than half a century since the United States and the former Soviet Union were working to out-science and out-spend each other in an attempt to make it into space and onto the Moon first. Now, 62 years after Sputnik, the starting gun may have been fired to begin a new Space Race. And it’s no longer being run between two parties.

For much of the past few decades, space has been a benign environment for the United States. We have utilized it to deliver capabilities and communications to the warfighter without a significant threat to our space assets. But, as Pete Hoene pointed out, “Space is not a safe haven…it’s a warfighting domain. Right now, China and Russia threaten our actions in space.”

This is a problem for the U.S., which has historically enjoyed a technological edge over adversaries thanks in large part to its space assets. However, with the emergence of threats in space, and with adversaries once again investing and innovating in space capabilities, that technological edge could be evaporating.

This was well articulated by Col. Steve Butow when he said, “…we use technology as our offset. If we lose our technological offset, we have to fight a fair fight, and that’s not what we want to do. We want to have technological capabilities that keep us in a dominant position in all domains.”

This is where the commercial space and satellite industry could help, and where the next trend, the new space renaissance, could factor in.

A renaissance in satellite technology
After decades of innovation and invention in space being driven by the United States government, things have shifted, and private industry has taken over in both innovation and investment. Today, satellite owners and operators are rapidly expanding constellations, introducing new satellite technologies with drastically increased throughputs and putting satellites in new orbits. And this is all creating new capabilities and tools that the government can implement and benefit from.

As Mr. Hoene explained, “62 years ago, Sputnik was launched and it created the biggest space race we’ll ever see between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. In the following 50 years, we spent a lot of money in the U.S. government. Over the past ten years, what we’ve found is that commercial has taken over in terms of investment and innovation.”

The introduction of these new technologies and new orbits means that high-throughput satellites (HTS) are now available on orbits closer to the Earth’s surface – including MEO and LEO. The result are incredible throughputs and bandwidth with significantly lower latency since the signal has to physically travel a shorter distance.

Not only can these new satellites meet the high-bandwidth, low-latency requirements of today’s innovative IT solutions, they also have the added benefit of helping increase the resiliency of America’s satellite infrastructure through disaggregation and diversification. As Mr. Hoene explained, “Think about how that would confuse and complicate the enemy’s targeting calculus if you’re looking at 150-plus satellites [operated by commercial owner/operators] as well as the ten WGS satellites. Then think about a multi-orbit approach, where you have LEO and MEO in play and how that can help with overall resilience.”

This ability to increase capacity and resiliency has many military leaders and industry executives advocating for a military satellite network architecture that incorporates both military assets and commercial services. And, based on the following from James Comfort, appears to be the future direction for the military:

“We don’t think it’s a ‘one size fits all.’ LEO does good stuff. MEO does good stuff. GEO does good stuff. What we need to [identify] is, what’s the right thing in MEO? What’s the right thing in LEO? What’s the right thing in GEO? We will probably end up with a mixture…”

Exciting talks of improved resiliency through a combined, integrated architecture are only superseded by the potential for innovation. The speed of development in the space industry drastically outpaces the development within the government and military.

This stark difference in pace of innovation was laid bare by Mr. Hoene who explained, “It takes [commercial providers] two to three years to identify the requirements for a satellite, get it on a launch pad and get it on orbit. The hosted payload, CHIRP, which was hosted on one of our satellites took about three years from contract award to on-orbit capability. The commercial space community…is able to turn around things in a couple of years when purpose built systems for the Department of Defense could take eight to ten years.”

By embracing commercial solutions and integrating commercial into the military’s space architecture, the government is expediting its speed of adoption for new, innovative satellite technologies. This means that commercial technologies, solutions and services could give the technological edge back to the U.S. military in today’s Space Race. But only if they can acquire commercial solutions in an efficient and timely manner.

In part two of our C4ISRNET Conference coverage, we’ll look at the acquisition challenges facing the military and some of the innovative ways for improving the government’s satellite acquisition processes, as suggested by the panelists.

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