U.S. National Security Policies: Shaping the Commercial Space Arena
By Carissa Bryce Christensen
Commercial space capabilities are increasingly important to the ability of the United States to achieve its national security objectives. Consequently, fostering commercial space will shift from a secondary consideration concerned with the economic health of the United States, to a necessary strategy for achieving military and intelligence mission objectives. This will lead to new programs and policies aimed at ensuring commercial capabilities are available in the future. As a result, U.S. national security space decisions will have a greater effect on the global commercial space industry than they have in the past.
Moreover, this growing reliance on commercial space occurs in the context of an increasingly international commercial space industry. U.S. military officials will need to buy space products and services from non-U.S. firms in cases where no U.S. provider is available. Such procurement measures may also occur when the U.S. military is trying to achieve desirable redundancy, or even as a mechanism for negotiating sharing of information about a provider’s operation or customers. This will require new approaches to ensuring access to transponders or imagery in times of conflict, including a focus on economic relationships where no policy control can be exercised. Even controlling access to capabilities owned by U.S. firms may require new approaches. An aggressive policy campaign in the interest of U.S. national security could drive customers to non-U.S. service providers, because U.S. policy threatens continuity of service. This in turn could cost U.S. firms market share, in an industry where non-U.S. providers already own two-thirds of the world’s transponder capacity, and three-quarters of users of transponders are non-U.S.
There are important steps that can improve the future availability of commercial space capabilities needed for U.S. national security.
First, national security space decisions should explicitly consider impacts on the commercial space industry, focusing on the long-term availability of critical capabilities. To do this, decision-makers need access to an independent assessment capability that provides insight into the potential impact of space-related decisions on the commercial space industry, similar to regulatory impact assessments. Direct industry input is critical to this process, but should not be the single source of analysis.
Second, the U.S. military should further establish economic relations with commercial service providers to augment or replace policy-driven relations. Decision-makers need routine access to flexible financial and contractual mechanisms such as the ability to enter into long-term contracts for routine and surge capacity or to negotiate in advance to pay premium prices for preferential access.
Third, interoperability among space systems should be a high priority. Military and intelligence space acquisitions should incorporate requirements for interoperability with commercial systems; ideally, both space-based and related terrestrial systems. This should include aggressive government support for the development and application of standards fostering interoperability and possibly direct support to industry for implementation. Interoperable systems would reduce vulnerability by enabling quick reconfiguration to provide backup as well as to reduce cost and improve efficiency.
Fourth, the requirements definition process for national security space systems should enable iteration to reflect the cost savings and reduced time frames associated with commercially available “80 percent” solutions.
Finally, the U.S. government needs to establish mechanisms for routine communication with the space industry that are more permanent and robust than ad hoc committees, limited-mandate advisory groups and individual marketing efforts. Commercial entities need to understand military requirements, government planners need to understand commercial capabilities, and non-defense commercial space firms need a place at the table. This interaction would be invaluable to R&D planning and to enabling requirements-against-cost trades. It would allow industry to participate in determining how impacts on industry are assessed and in defining the options that government decision-makers consider.
This expanded arsenal of strategies will, however, face challenges. The U.S. acquisition system is not geared toward market-driven flexibility. Economic relationships with non-U.S. providers will probably require reaching some degree of diplomatic or policy accommodations with the other national governments. Justifying expenditures on interoperability and mechanisms for communication with industry may be challenging even when benefits are expected to exceed costs. U.S. providers may have objections to government relationships with their competitors. There may be perceptions that inappropriate government control is being exerted over marketplace interactions, and that a de facto industrial policy is being established. And, of course, security concerns will always be part of decisions regarding use of commercial products and services.
The bottom line, however, is that U.S. national security will rely on the global commercial space industry for the foreseeable future and national security decisions must reflect that reality.
Carissa Bryce Christensen is a founder and managing partner of The Tauri Group, an engineering and analysis consulting firm in Alexandria, VA.