Building Blocks for a New US Military Space Policy


By Dr. Robbin Laird

10/03/2011 – The Administration has issued a thoughtful new military space policy.  At the heart of the new national security strategy is a stated objective of providing for improved U.S. space capabilities.  Although articulate, looking for achievements, which actually implement the new strategy, are a bit hard to find.

Leveraging new military platforms and capabilities in the commercial space sector can put in play building blocks for a new military space policy (Credit for image: Bigstock)
Leveraging new military platforms and capabilities in the commercial space sector can put in play building blocks for a new military space policy (Credit for image: Bigstock)

Innovation in a constricted financial environment is especially challenging.  Yet it can be done, if hard decisions are made to terminate what can no longer be afforded, if other military platforms are leveraged in a comprehensive C4ISR D strategy, partnering with commercial and allied offerings pursued in a realistic policy environment, and a distributed architecture pursued whereby capabilities emerge from the elements of a deployed capability, rather than trying for a costly comprehensive architecture which requires proprietary funding to support the end to end effort.  Leveraging other people’s money, whether commercial or foreign space, or other Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Decision Making Support or C4ISR D platforms is essential for an affordable, capable military space strategy.

The mix can well drive innovation and match quality of shaping a de factor distributed space architecture. Overcoming stove piped programs, and challenging DOD and the intelligence community to OPERATE outside the box is crucial.  Simply contemplating change is not adequate.  Engaging in organizational innovation is at the heart of today’s technological innovation. Money can be freed up to support needs revealed by organizational innovation and core needs, which emerge at the edge of overlapping capabilities.

First, hard decisions need to be made concerning termination.  The EELV program is unaffordable, and the notion of two launch families being supported in a diminishing demand driven environment makes no sense.  United Launch Alliance needs to become Un-united Launch Alliance and single vendor chosen.  The backup launcher for national security space is clearly at hand as well, namely the Ariane V.  Arianespace can provide a backup capability to DOD to ensure reliable launch after one of the two launch families is eliminated from the EELV program.

Second, the Space X revolution needs to be put into context.  Although DOD seems willing to use undeveloped and untested Space X products, the reality is that when DOD takes its unique satellites to a launch customer, the Department spends a great deal of time regulating the relationship to ensure reliability.  This requirement will make it hard for Space X to become easily the next EELV launcher, but if this can happen then Arianespace can still remain the service providing a backup capability whilst the Administration engages in innovation with Space X or other vendors able to deliver lower launch costs.

Third, money needs to be saved in part to continue support for a core robotic vehicle, which can provide top end capability for the C4ISR D enterprise.  The X-34B promises some core breakthrough capabilities for the deployed warfighter and the insertion of force.  The X-34B as an operating robotic vehicle provides capabialities not available with fixed launchers.  But if savings are not found from the fixed launcher programs, it will be difficult to fund this breakthrough capability.

Fourth, space provides a significant contribution to C4ISR D or data for decision-making.  Yet the unmanned revolution as well as the fifth generation aircraft is game changers in providing data for deployed decision makers.  And the role of hoisted payloads in supporting UAVs has become evident in the Afghanistan operation.  The new capabilities can provide a re-think about how to leverage commercial space, notably hoisted payloads, in supporting air-breathing C4ISR D assets.

The role of proprietary military space becomes a default capability: what CAN NOT be provided by the powerful conjunction of air breathing assets and commercial satellite capabilities?  The relatively un-agile DOD structure would then be put on notice to identify programs that are needed which can interact with such a conjunctive capability, but provide unique and core capabilities UNABLE to be generated either by air breathing military assets of the commercial space, notably hoisted payloads structure.

Savings would come from both sources.

First, DOD would have to ACT outside the box in leveraging its investments in unmanned and manned aerospace assets.  The deployment of the F-35 will provide game-changing ISR capabilities, which can be harvested to reshape the C4ISR D structure.

Second, the evolution of satellite capabilities in the commercial sector provides significant cost investments, which DOD does NOT need to make.  DOD by shaping long-term contractual service relationships can save scarce investment capital.  But this requires DOD to think and contract long term, not one of its core competencies.

Such an approach facilitates a strategic re-think, which parallels what we are doing with fifth generation aircraft.  The focus is upon distributed operations and shaping a honeycomb of decision-making supporting the deployed warfighter.  Such a focus allows one to tap into the emerging thinking about shaping a disaggregated strategy whereby space policy makers look to focus on overall capabilities from the enterprise rather than concentration of capabilities on single point of failure platforms.

Disaggregation and distributed operations further highlights the opportunity to build smaller payloads and to operate across a variety of launch platforms.  By reducing the cost impact of a launch failure and its impact on expensive and complicated satellites, innovation is enhanced as well.  With a diversity of assets distributed across the space enterprise, and leveraging commercial space and air-breathing assets, innovation and cost effectiveness are enabled.

Without such an entrepreneurial quality to managing the space enterprise, DOD will remain stuck in the last century with diminishing assets and capabilities.  Such an outcome cannot be in the national interest.

This piece first appeared in Space News (August 8, 2011).

This is a contribution to the Strategic Whiteboard.