In November of 2019, on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) finally declared full operating capability (FOC), after a nearly two yearlong organizational restructure. Then the unthinkable happened. The coronavirus reached the U.S., forcing military organizations to pivot and adapt to a world of VPNs, Zoom calls, and other remote work technologies.
So, it would be safe to assume that an organization entering a pandemic soon after achieving FOC would experience at least some hurdles and hiccups. But the picture that Lieutenant General JT Thompson, Commander of Space Force’s SMC, paints reveals quite the opposite.
On May 12, 2021, Thompson sat down with the Mitchell Institute’s Space Power Forum to highlight what SMC accomplished during the pandemic, discuss the growing roles that the commercial space sector and international partnerships are playing in the advancement of SMC’s capabilities, and to give an update on the Space Systems Command‘s (SSC) stand up process.
Thompson opened the forum by providing an impressive rundown of all that SMC achieved during the last year and a half. After giving a special nod to SMC for its high performance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he reaffirmed, with pride, SMC’s ability to persevere and advance its mission of providing unparalleled space capabilities to joint warfighters.
Despite the pandemic, SMC performed seven national security space launches, completed the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation, added two more GPS III satellites to the Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) constellation, and awarded the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 contract on-time and without protest. To Thompson, 2020 was, without a doubt, an extremely successful year for SMC.
SMC made further progress through the expansion of the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), by adding its 500th member, as well as awarding a new management contract for SpEC, which was comprised of a 10 year, $12 billion deal. SpEC was originally created “to bridge the cultural gap between military buyers and commercial space startups and small businesses through OTAs.” Fostering the growth of SMC’s relationship with the commercial space sector was a consistent theme that Thompson returned to throughout the forum.
The commercial space sector, Thompson believes, will be key in outpacing the advancement of adversarial counterspace systems. He explained, “I think we need to go bigger and bolder on incorporating commercial space capabilities into the service. We also saw…the increased development and testing of counter space systems by our adversaries, China and Russia. To compete in the space domain for the next decade, we really have to continue to refine our programs and our architectures in ways that allow us to both rapidly and efficiently partner with these new space startups.”
Thompson also underscored the commercial sector’s potential in enhancing and advancing Space Force’s space domain awareness, space traffic management, and weather monitoring initiatives.
He emphasized that commercial markets are driving a paradigm shift in speed, access, and relevance in the tactical battle space, but due to current Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) procurement requirements models, SMC doesn’t have as much flexibility as it should to pursue capabilities and technologies that the sector offers.
“It’s not an acquisition problem,” Thompson stated. “It’s a whole of the Department [of Defense] problem to try and access these commercial things on relevant timelines. We have a lot of engagements with industry. They have a ton of sharp folks who love to experiment, and they want to get after new ways to integrate commercial capabilities and capacities into our architecture.”
Thompson noted that similar to the booming potential the commercial sector offers the SMC, international and allied partnerships’ potential is just as booming. He explained that allied partners are playing an increasingly critical role in the U.S.’ “resilience to and deterrence of hostile and unsafe activity in space.”
In November of last year, SMC held the International Space Pitch Day, which resulted in the awarding of contracts to 10 small businesses across the U.K., Australia, U.S., and India. He gave an exciting update that earlier this year, the awardees presented progress in cutting edge areas such as blockchain, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI). He praised the outcomes that sprang from the pitch day event and reported that SMC has received a huge wave of interest from other host countries around the world to participate in International Space Pitch Day in 2022. “It’s a relatively small effort,” said Thompson. “It’s relatively small dollars, but we’re seeing a huge impact from it.”
Another international partnership success story included the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that General John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations at the U.S. Space Force, signed with Japan last December. The MOU supports the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) program to host a pair of U.S. payloads on two Japanese satellites.
U.S. Space Force’s collaboration with Space Norway and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense for the Enhanced Polar System – Recapitalization (EPS-R) was another win that Thompson highlighted. The EPS-R partnership enables payload hosting on two Norwegian polar satellites for artic communications purposes.
According to Thompson, the U.S. Space Force is currently discussing and exploring international space acquisition partnerships with Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Thompson said, “If the global space economy is going to grow as it’s expected…then we’ve got to be able to take advantage of these international partnerships over the next few years, to the mutual advantage of ourselves and our allies.”
Thompson also updated the forum on the stand up process of the Space Systems Command (SSC). In April of this year, U.S. Space Force announced launching SSC to take over technology development and acquisition, which has previously been under SMC’s purview. Thompson reported that SSC is planned be stood up this summer, pending a Commander’s nomination and confirmation.
“By continuing to collaborate with space acquisition organizations and bring them closer into the architectural collaborations that we have, I think that those partnerships will continue to pay huge dividends,” said Thompson.