A new report from the Atlantic Council warns that US defense agencies are not taking advantage of commercial space innovation
WASHINGTON – The United States risks being overtaken by China in space capabilities, in part due to the slow adoption of commercial innovations like small satellites, warns a new report published on May 5 by the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security of the Atlantic Council.
“If the United States wants to maintain space superiority, it will it needs to make substantive cultural, doctrinal, and operational changes in its multidimensional relationship with the commercial space industry,” says the report titled Small Satellites: The Implications for National Security.
The call small satellite revolution generated by mass manufacturing and cheaper access to orbit has it’s been a boon to the space economy, but it’s not yet a boon to national security space programs, argues Nicholas Eftimiades, nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center and author of the report.
He points to the US government’s “lack of understanding of commercial markets, outdated institutional processes, and a defense bureaucracy that is unwilling or unable to adapt to the changing environment” as reasons why small satellites are still considered platforms. for experiments rather than core capabilities for US Defense and Intelligence.
Eftimiades warns that other countries like China are embracing business innovation faster than the United States. This could put the US at a disadvantage in areas such as remote sensing, communications and in-orbit data processing, all areas that are advancing rapidly due to the growing capabilities and increasingly affordable prices of small satellites.
“Over the next decade or so, commercial space activities will increase the number of operational satellites by almost a full order of magnitude, primarily through the development of small satellites,” he writes. “A new space ecosystem is being born, with profound implications for the security and economic development of the world.
The speed at which commercial space companies are launching thousands of satellites into orbit presents “unique challenges to US security.” space, as well as for deployed armed forces. There will be increased congestion on certain orbits, competition for communications bandwidth, new types of space operations, increased transparency, and a changing threat paradigm,” the report says.
“Competing in this changing environment will require the United States to make substantial changes to long-established defense acquisition processes, research and investment strategies, data classification and distribution,” Eftimiades writes.
To increase the resiliency of various US space systems, the report said, the Department of Defense must use commercial systems, including proliferated satellite architectures and responsive space launch capabilities, and purchase data from allied and commercial vendors.
Other points made in the report:
- The Department of Defense and the intelligence community are trying to take advantage of the small satellite revolution. But the Defense Department does not generally take a “buy commercial first” approach to space services.
- There is an established culture that ignores legislated “business first” mandates, and such behavior has become increasingly detrimental to national security interests.
- Over the past decade, this culture has eroded US space superiority, and will continue to do so as the world moves toward low-cost, rapidly developed and deployed commercial space systems.
- The Department of Defense’s acquisition processes are designed to reduce risk and, as a result, are unprepared for the high-speed commercial space environment.
- The Department of Defense strives to expedite the acquisition process for small satellites and associated technologies. Results to date are mixed.
- A positive step is being taken by the DoD Space Development Agency, which is building a distributed space architecture of small satellites.
The report lists a series of actions recommended by the US government to better harness commercial space innovation:
- Congress and the administration must conduct rigorous oversight to ensure that the Department of Defense and intelligence organizations implement “buy commercial first” policies.
- The commerce secretary should take out the Office of Space Commerce from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Buried in NOAA, the Office of Space Commerce is in a poor position to carry out the required interagency and international coordination.
- Congress should direct the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to conduct a study to identify the national security missions that can be accomplished through commercial space.
- To improve security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Commerce must engage in space diplomatic efforts, with the goal of establishing global standards of behavior in space.
Thales Group, a multinational aerospace and defense contractor, provided financial support for the study.