Satellite industry essential to winning next Space Race

In our last post on the Government Satellite Report, we reported on the recent C4ISRNET Conference and an interesting panel discussion held during the event 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

During that discussion, the panelists talked about how America could be embroiled in a new, 21st Century Space Race. Unlike the previous Space Race, which was all about getting a man into space and onto the Moon first, this Space Race involves the development and deployment of satellite capabilities and networks. Also unlike the previous Space Race, the panelists seem to believe that there was a real chance that America could lose.

Unfortunately for the United States, the near-peer adversaries that we’re currently racing against are gaining on us. But the U.S. government and military could have an ace up their sleeve in the form of the commercial satellite industry, which is currently innovating and advancing space and satellite capabilities at a breakneck pace.

“If there’s a way to share some of the threat requirements and demand signals…[commercial SATCOM providers] can get the investors in our companies to pursue new and innovative capabilities to meet emerging U.S. government threat characteristics.” – Pete Hoene
However, to take advantage of those capabilities, the government will need to overcome some familiar challenges – including acquisition and spending challenges that have been bemoaned by the satellite industry for years. Challenges that our adversaries don’t necessarily face.

Acquisition and funding challenges create bottleneck
Keeping the military’s technological edge is becoming increasingly difficult. The United States simply doesn’t play by the same rules as its adversaries.

While the United States has a clear delineation between the private companies spearheading innovation and the country’s government, military and national defense organizations, adversaries such as Russia and China do not. Our adversaries also have less stringent oversight on spending and fewer hurdles keeping them from acquiring the technologies and solutions they need.

As Col. Butow explained, “[The United States] work[s] in one-year steps. Our adversaries don’t. They want it, they buy it and employ it tomorrow. If we’re too late for the FY 2020 [National Defense Authorization Act], we’ll have to get it in 2021.”

Combined, these factors could contribute to the United States running a Space Race against extremely advanced, near-peer adversaries with its legs bound. And while the country may have enjoyed a head-start, the restrictions and limitations that it uniquely faces could have the other runners breathing down our necks in no time.

The problem was explained by Victoria Samson, who said:

“There is a recognition over the past couple of decades that the way that military space has been developed and acquired is not current…the government is trying to figure out how we handle that. We see that in Congress right now. The appropriators want one thing, the authorizers want another. They’re probably not going to get it sorted anytime soon. It’s a time of change, and our institutional processes are struggling to keep up.”

Overcoming the acquisition hurdle
Historically, the government and military have treated the acquisition of satellite capacity and services the way they would any other commodity. Satellite capacity has been bought on the spot market, which often costs more. However, the extra cost isn’t the largest problem with acquiring satellite this way – it’s the lack of cooperation and collaboration with the satellite industry that results from spot purchases that is really hindering the government.

The government and military could benefit greatly by working hand-in-hand with the satellite industry in a collaborative, consultative environment. By sharing their challenges and requirements more fully and working collaboratively with industry to address them, the government would effectively gain access to an innovative partner that could help them identify new and different approaches and technologies to help them overcome their problems.

To make this a reality, the government and military would have to rethink its approach and relationship with the satellite industry. This was a sentiment that was expressed and championed by the panelists – many of which urged the government to work more closely with the space and satellite industry, move to embrace more public-private partnerships and work to give the military more freedom and flexibility in how it spends dollars.

Along these lines, Mr. Hoene called for increased, clearer communications between government customers and commercial owners/operators when he said, “If there’s a way to share some of the threat requirements and demand signals…[commercial SATCOM providers] can get the investors in our companies to pursue new and innovative capabilities to meet emerging U.S. government threat characteristics. Industry can bring a lot to the table if we ask the right questions and we’re given the proper answers.”

Discussions at the C4ISRNET Conference showed there is a new Space Race ongoing – but this one has more participants than the one previously won by the United States. While our military has a head start, it’s quickly evaporating. If the U.S. is going to keep its technological offset, commercial industry is going to be the key. Military leaders and Congress need to make it easier and faster for decision makers to purchase and acquire the innovative solutions they need.

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