The Department of Defense and the intelligence community are setting requirements for how they would use commercial space systems during war.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The conflict in Ukraine has shed light on the commercial value satellites for national security, but there are still open questions about how the military will work with private space companies in times of war, said Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, special assistant to the chief of space operations for the US Space Force.
“Now we need to codify our relationships with commercial [industry] to better leverage those capabilities in a fight,” Burt said Sept. 21 at the Air, Space & Cyber conference.
Burt, most recently commander of the U.S. Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component, led the command’s “business integration cell,” a group of 10 companies sharing classified information about potential threats in orbit.
The cell began as a pilot program in 2015 to facilitate data sharing between the US military and commercial satellite operators. Member companies sign cooperation agreements with the government, but are not paid.
Three members of the CIC — SpaceX, Viasat and Maxar have supported Ukraine and its allies, providing services such as communications and satellite imaging, Burt noted.
“The three companies were very much into their own businesses, working with Ukraine, but we went to great lengths to make sure, where we could, that we could talk to them and integrate with them,” he said. “As corporate America, was there anything we could do to help them?”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that followed have shown that the military is becoming more dependent on commercial space services than in previous conflicts, Burt said. It is necessary to define how the military, for example, would integrate commercial space services in a hybrid architecture.
Burt said US Space Command and the Space Force are working with the intelligence community to establish the requirements for commercial space systems and “and how we would take advantage of those capabilities.”
In previous wars, the Defense Department used to lease satellite capacity to commercial operators “or we would have an entire satellite dedicated to us,” Burt said. The industry now offers fully managed services, and “now we need to think about buying things as a service, rather than having to put gatekeepers on consoles to do it.”
DoD to increase use of commercial space
General John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations, told reporters on September 21 that one of the takeaways from the war in Ukraine is the value of commercial space systems.
“Have you seen where they have used Starlink, they have used commercial ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities,” Raymond said. “I think that will continue to happen as the commercial space industry continues to flourish. There will be more and more missions that are commercially viable.”
The idea that the military will become more dependent on commercial satellites for imaging and other services. has sparked discussions about how the Department of Defense could compensate companies if their spacecraft are damaged during armed conflict.
Industry executives speaking at a The Air, Space & Space panel said these are important policy issues that need to be resolved so the industry can plan accordingly.
“I’m very excited that the conversation is starting,” said Bryan “Stu” Eberhardt, Boeing’s senior director of satellite systems.
“The commercial industry is very different in the way it is incentivized to do business,” he said. “And if the government is second-guessing whether or not it’s investing in a service that it wants provided,” the government could end up not receiving that service, he added.
If the government commits to financial support, companies will ensure that the government’s needs are taken into account when developing their next-generation systems, Eberhardt said. “So I think having this conversation right now is really crucial.”
James Reynolds, vice president of business development for defense space at SAIC, said it’s about assessing risk. In the space industry, investors take a lot of risk and would welcome “some guarantee that the government will support you in taking that risk.”
Having a contractual agreement where the government compensates the industry if commercial satellites are attacked “I think that’s a great way to make sure we’re all working together, bringing whatever capabilities we can, whatever data sources we can, to accept this threat.”
“If commercial satellites get caught up in some irresponsible behavior, then we have to do what it takes as a nation to win,” said Shon Manasco, senior counsel at Palantir Technologies.
“That means addressing this policy and being clear about what the federal government is going to do,” he said. “I think that is something that is absolutely imperative.”