Pedal to the Metal: Accelerating Pentagon Integration of Commercial Space

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The Department of Defense (DOD) recently released two documents describing a new approach to tapping into private sector space capabilities—the DOD Commercial Space Integration Strategy, issued by the secretary of defense, and the U.S. Space Force Commercial Space Strategy, issued jointly by the chief of space operations and the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

These two strategies have the potential to transform the relationship between the DOD and the commercial space industry, unlocking long-overdue benefits for the DOD, like the delivery of new capabilities at speed, while yielding greater returns on the significant amount of private domestic capital invested in the U.S. space industry over the past several years—a win-win for the nation.

The most significant way both documents create the potential for a welcome departure from the status quo is with one simple word—integration. Secretary Austin says it best in the foreword to the DOD strategy (so well, in fact, that this line is quoted in the Space Force strategy): “Integrating commercial solutions, as opposed to merely augmenting existing government systems, will require a shift in approach within the Department.”

Over the past decade, the national security space community has debated whether the appropriate role for commercial and allied space capabilities was to “merely augment” DOD owned and operated systems or whether deeper integration would be pursued or even allowed. Until these two strategies, however, augmentation was tacitly as far as the DOD was willing to go—never before had any official DOD policy described commercial integration as the desired end state. The deliberate use of this one small word has the potential to be a watershed moment in the history of the DOD’s relationship with the private sector. There is no commercial air integration strategy or commercial maritime integration strategy that is the standard bearer; commercial space integration can pave the way. If these new commercial space strategies are successful in sparking the type of meaningful changes to DOD acquisition practices that are sorely needed to reap the benefits of the widespread utilization of commercially available space products and services, they should serve as a model for the rest of the national security community.

But more than just words on a page are needed to produce the kind of meaningful and lasting change promised by these strategies. The entire national security space enterprise—from the halls of Congress where funding is appropriated to the contracting offices at Los Angeles Air Force Base where deals are inked—will need to change policies, practices, and culture to make this transformation successful.

The most significant change that these strategies alone do not—and cannot—directly impact is funding policy. But this change is the single most important element needed to make commercial integration real. Luckily, what’s needed isn’t more funding overall but rather a reallocation of existing funding away from traditional programs of record that acquire government owned and operated space systems and toward the procurement of commercially available products and services that place responsibility with the private sector for executing a portion of a given mission area.

Current appropriations structures almost certainly do not provide the flexibility necessary to change how current funding is spent. Therefore, congressional action is needed to reallocate funding toward this goal—no easy feat in today’s political climate. Even if congressional action were swift and dramatic, the earliest new funding could realistically be available would be early 2025, which itself would require near-circumvention of the ordinary two-year government planning, programming, and appropriations process. But if the preponderance of the Space Force’s $18.7 billion FY 2025 budget request for research, development, test, and evaluation (RDR&E)—which funds most Space Force acquisitions—is not reallocated (or even able to be reallocated) to commercial service contracts, then these strategies simply cannot be implemented.

The second way in which current practice should evolve is through greater transparency and collaboration in the Space Force’s force design processes. The Space Force strategy is clear in identifying this process as the way to increase understanding of what private sector capabilities exist or could be easily modified to fulfill DOD requirements. But what is not stated and arguably would do more to drive commercial integration would be guidance to those in government developing force designs to consider commercial solutions first—not last—when determining the right mix of commercial and government capabilities for a given space mission architecture. While national and DOD policy has for years directed that commercial space capabilities and services be purchased to the maximum extent practicable (see Section 5 of the 2020 National Space Policy for the most recent language), the reality is that overly prescriptive requirements and a culture of risk avoidance has meant that while the letter of this guidance may be upheld, the spirit rarely is. This must change if the Space Force is serious about fulfilling its own mantra to “exploit what we have. . . buy what we can. . . [and] build only what we must.” 

Finally, perhaps the hardest practice that must be overcome to achieve commercial integration is not a practice at all, but rather an ingrained culture of mistrust of commercial solutions. Too often leaders at all levels within the DOD express concern that commercial space services will not be there when needed or that commercial solutions will be more vulnerable to adversary attacks than government owned and operated systems. These attitudes are not entirely unfounded, and yet both the DOD and Space Force strategies are largely silent on how the DOD will organically build trust with commercial space services and change the culture within the ranks.

Helpfully, both strategies call out the imperative to share more threat information with the space private sector so that companies can take steps to protect themselves from the growing litany of counterspace threats. Given the widespread availability of “not classified” commercial space domain awareness and remote sensing information, along with advances many companies are making in artificial intelligence and machine learning to rapidly detect and warn of potential space threats, procuring and disseminating commercial threat warnings could be a far easier path for the DOD to implement real-time threat information sharing compared to the often slow and cumbersome process of downgrading classified government information. It would also be a further win-win with respect to commercial integration.

But sharing threat information and hoping industry does something with it cannot be the beginning and end of building confidence that commercial capabilities will be there when needed. The DOD can also help industry uncover unknown vulnerabilities, through red-teaming or live-fire exercises where commercial services are put through their paces, followed up by making resources available to shore up those weaknesses attendant to serving the DOD customer. Additionally, pathfinders or pilot projects that allow the DOD to try out commercial solutions can help build familiarity with private sector solutions, inform acquisition strategies, and pave the way for longer-term, more strategic relationships. Finally, integration should begin with integrated government-commercial operations in peacetime to learn what works—and what doesn’t—so that surging in crisis and conflict is a seamless extension of past practice, precedent, and performance.

Most importantly, Space Force leadership should work to change the mindset of all guardians—uniformed, civilian, and contractor-support alike—to understand that commercial integration is everyone’s responsibility. Although establishing commercial-focused offices like the Space Systems Command’s (SSC) Commercial Space Office can be helpful in providing a clear entry point for private sector engagement with the Space Force, this unintentional stovepiping risks creating a perception that only those offices are responsible for commercial integration. Every SSC program executive officer and acquisition office should be responsible for ensuring that their mission area requirements are met through an appropriate mix of government-owned capabilities and commercial products and services. Effecting such a pervasive cultural change is arguably the most difficult prerequisite to fully realizing the benefits of commercial integration.

Luckily, the notion of integrating commercial solutions with government capabilities isn’t without precedent, and a number of outside experts are providing timely advice on how the DOD can navigate the waters ahead. The executive summary of a Defense Science Board study on commercial space system access and integrity is due to be released publicly soon, and a recent report on lessons learned from cloud service integration provides a road map for how commercial space integration could be achieved.

Clearly, there is a window of opportunity now to improve DOD adoption of commercial space capabilities to the benefit of our nation. The DOD vision is clear, and the space industry is ready. High-level strategies, however, are necessary but insufficient to realize meaningful and lasting change. The hard work of implementation is next.

Audrey M. Schaffer is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Audrey Schaffer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Aerospace Security Project