Commercial Space Industry Can Deliver Agility and Innovation for Better Space Resilience

The U.S. government urgently needs to transform its approach to space defense. Slow and onerous procurement processes are stunting the innovation necessary to sustaining the nation’s leadership in the national security space arena. A more responsive approach to acquisition can help the Department of Defense (DOD) boost the resiliency of its space enterprise, and provide access to the agility, diversity, and innovation of the commercial space sector.

Late last year senior government leaders from Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) and senior executives from a variety of companies gathered for the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) annual Executive Forum in Colorado Springs. The theme was “Preparing for Tomorrow’s Fight,” a priority identified in Gen. John Hyten’s Commander’s Strategic Intent. I had the privilege of representing Intelsat General (IGC) as the only commercial satellite operator invited to attend the event.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s bureaucracy is structured to slow things down. This must change if the nation is to defend itself against challenges from countries such as Russia and China for space leadership.

The Executive Forum enabled a fruitful discussion of the strategic challenges the U.S. faces in space. Gen Hyten and other key leaders have articulated a Space Enterprise Vision (SEV) which outlines how the U.S. must rapidly transform its national security space systems into a more capable, defensible, and resilient force. Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s bureaucracy is structured to slow things down. This must change if the nation is to defend itself against challenges from countries such as Russia and China for space leadership.

As it faces a more competitive future, the U.S. government should capitalize on the lessons commercial companies have learned from years of intense competition in the space industry. Any study of military and business history indicates that new challenges, or lack thereof, drive the need for agility and innovation. The nature of competition may be different; but government and business organizations are often motivated by similar forces – including the need to survive, grow, and thrive in their environments.

Since Desert Storm, the U.S. has enjoyed a dominant position over potential adversaries in virtually all warfighting domains, including space. In that time, the U.S. has fielded many incredibly complex and capable space weapon systems. However, two trends threaten to upend the country’s leadership position.

First, the rapid growth of space force enhancement and counter space systems from the likes of Russia and China are closing the capability gap. Second, the U.S. government’s glacial procurement practices inhibit innovation, undermining the nation’s ability to deter those threats or defend against them.

We see a different situation in the commercial space industry. The industry has been intensely competitive for decades—especially in the satellite communications (SATCOM) sector. And the field is only getting more competitive as new players enter the market with disruptive technologies and business models. In order to remain relevant and adapt to new threats to revenue and market share, successful players in the commercial space industry must be capable of driving and sustaining rapid technology and product evolution. In short, they must be agile and innovative.

At IGC, we embrace this kind of competitive spirit. As a satellite owner-operator, Intelsat must assess and predict future customer and market demands, and pursue rapid capability evolution in our satellite systems and networks to meet those demands and stay ahead of our competitors. We enable rapid system development through streamlined organizations and processes. We also rely on mature technologies, when possible, to reduce risks and to increase the speed to market. When necessary, we use market leverage to drive technology innovation through our manufacturing base, in order to bring transformational capabilities to bear against new market opportunities.

The DOD must adopt such a competitive spirit to speed transformation and achieve the SEV’s capability and resiliency objectives. This means adapting its organizations, policies, and cultures at all levels to be much more agile and innovative. A good place to start is by leveraging the innovation occurring within the commercial space industry. There is growing recognition among U.S. military, intelligence, and civil space stakeholders of the tremendous value commercial capabilities can bring to traditional government mission areas, such as SATCOM, remotes sensing, and launch. The DOD should tap into commercial investments in innovative space, ground, and cyber capabilities to boost the diversity and proliferation of its national security space enterprise.

The U.S. government should also leverage commercial industry insights when considering architecture alternatives. This can be a win-win situation for government and industry. For example, at least one U.S. government agency has used a series of small study contracts to engage a variety of manufacturers and service providers in exploring future system requirements and industry capabilities. More recently, the DOD incorporated a commercial working group into the new Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives (WCS AoA) process. Unlike more traditional acquisition processes, these more collaborative approaches promote a rich government-industry dialogue that can benefit both the public and private sector.

Finally, the DOD should pursue all available procurement approaches to drive innovation in its space capabilities. There are many ways to do this, such as Pathfinder initiatives, hosted payloads, Small Business Innovation Research programs, and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements. These approaches could enable the U.S. government to take advantage of extant commercial capabilities, test and evolve new technologies, and enable more rapid transition from prototypes into operational systems.

Challenges in space will only increase in pace and sophistication. In order to maintain capabilities second to none, the DOD must address the fundamental issues preventing it from being agile and innovative. Fortunately, it has a prime example to go by in the commercial space industry.

Written by Rory Welch, VP of Engineering and Service Delivery