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Crowded Cosmos Calls for National Security Space Strategy

Image: Melanie Gamarra

The Defense Department’s  newly released National Security Space Strategy has made it clear —  once known as the final frontier, the race to leverage technology and capabilities in space has opened up to a number of competing nations, making the limitless cosmos feel a little cozier these days.

The buzzwords, according to the strategy and also in the public pronouncements of top Defense Department officials are: “congested, contested and competitive,” — their description of how things currently stand in space.

Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III began prepping the Pentagon’s message as early as last November, when, speaking at the U.S. Strategic Command space symposium, he said the U.S. isn’t ready to bow out of the space race, but that we must change the way we think about space.

“Congested”

It used to be that the sprint to space innovation was a two-man race: between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, there are 60 nations with a presence in space, which means there’s also more equipment, satellites and debris cluttering the void.  By 2015, 9,000 satellite transponders will be active, Lynn explained at the Stratcom space conference in November.

For example, DoD tracks some 22,000 man-made objects in orbit, the new strategy reveals. And of those, about  1,100 are active satellites. “There may be as many as hundreds of thousands of additional pieces of debris that are too small to track with current sensors,” the report continues. “Yet these smaller pieces of debris can damage satellites in orbit.”

“Contested”

Gone also are the days when the United States can “take the stability or sustainability of space — or access to it — for granted,” Lynn said.

“Many countries can hold space systems at risk through kinetic and nonkinetic means,” he added. Some countries have even jammed satellite signals to block news coverage, highlighting how counterspace capabilities can be used for not only military purposes but political ones as well.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank, foresees possible shortcomings in the strategy, though. As a candidate, President Barack Obama promised not to weaponize space, and the new strategy focuses less on weaponizing space and more on  the U.S. “leading by example,” to deter other nations from doing so, which the foundation notes, obviously has its limits.

The new policy might well “force the U.S. in the direction of giving up its dominant position in military and intelligence space capabilities, which provide the U.S. with enormous advantages over the enemy in the conduct and support of military operations,” the foundation’s blog posits.

Ambassador Gregory L. Schulte, the deputy secretary of defense for space policy, partly addressed those concerns when DoD released the strategy earlier this year.

“We have to think about how to encourage other countries to act responsibly in space and how the United States can provide leadership in that regard,” he told the American Forces Press Service. “And … we need to think differently about how to deter others from attacking our space assets.”

“Competitive”

Schulte also described another priority of the new strategy: better leveraging the increasing amount of foreign commercial capabilities in space.

So what does the new strategy mean for the government-contracting market? A key component of the administration’s National Space Strategy (which was released last summer and is separate from the national security policy, although it does overlap in places) is improving the development process for space systems — including acquisition — to make sure the U.S. remains competitive.

“Block buys and the deliberate management of the engineering work force are two avenues in particular we are actively exploring,” Lynn said. “Block buys have the potential to reduce costs and timelines by creating more predictable demand and allowing larger material buys with fewer spares. Establishing a predictable demand schedule has the added advantage of stabilizing the engineering work force associated with a project.”

Another proposed change to the space buying strategy involves using commercial products when available, rather than developing products “from scratch,” The Washington Post reported last month.

For example, McLean-based satellite firm Iridium has built a solid foundation on “hosted payloads,” essentially leasing space on its satellites for customers’ — including the U.S government — equipment.

Even as space has become a little more crowded these days, the Defense Department’s national security space strategy proves that the space market, which has been building a lot of buzz, is just at the launch pad.

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