Recently, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (ASCFEA) was introduced to reform domestic oversight of certain commercial space activities. As outlined in a previous post, this bill tackles two issues: (1) it reforms oversight of commercial remote sensing; and (2) it introduces certification for missions that currently stand outside of America’s regulatory regime. The bill is a major step in the right direction, particularly for the commercial outer space industry. One of the questions that has arisen, however, is how the bill would affect America’s national security.

Ever since commercial companies first embarked on activities in outer space, there have been concerns about how their actions would interact with America’s national security apparatus in orbit. With an anticipated increase in commercial activity, these interactions have only grown in importance.

What are the National Security Concerns?

National security concerns about space are not to be taken lightly. The U.S. military relies heavily on space capabilities for communications, reconnaissance, positioning, navigation, and timing. Everything from verifying potential enemy ballistic missile launches to location of ground troops in a firefight relies on outer space capabilities. The United States Air Force is growing increasingly worried about the potential of conflict extending to space and its ability to provide access to essential space capabilities.

The concern that commercial use of outer space could pose risks to national security rests on the potential for commercial space capabilities to be used by belligerent countries, and the possibility that expansive use of space could interfere with military operations.

The first potential problem is that companies could sell information to U.S. rivals. This has historically been an issue in the remote sensing industry. In the past, satellite imagery was one of the few ways to observe U.S. military assets and operations, and so America restricted what could be sold abroad. While the specifics of these restrictions have changed over time, this regime is still in place. However, other industries have also been restricted through export controls. Even technical assistance and analysis has been controlled under export regulations.

The second national security issue relating to space ties into general interference with military space operations. Commercial activities in space could interfere with military operations both in physical orbits, and through spectrum allocation. The higher risk of space junk with more commercial assets in space and the problem of spectrum use by commercial constellations, ships, or stations have been identified as potential problems for future military capabilities.

Changes in Security Environment

These security concerns, on the face of their own arguments, may seem to undermine the case for the ASCFEA. After all, the bill would reduce restrictions on remote sensing and open up space to more types of commercial missions.

However, the last decade has seen a reshaping of the space security environment. This will require moving beyond the defense approaches of the past—approaches that will benefit from the ASCFEA.

Take remote sensing, for example. There are an increasing number of countries that have access to remote sensing capabilities. Several foreign systems can now challenge the United States’ leadership in remote sensing. In fact, non-U.S. space companies regularly market their products as being unconstrained by American export control rules, allowing them to undercut their American rivals. This hinders U.S. sales and American innovation. With a decline in American innovation comes a decline in national security capability.

Similarly, other countries are not standing back from undertaking their own missions. Countries from Europe to India are growing their launch capabilities—sending hundreds of new satellites into orbit. Luxembourg has established its own regulatory system for space resource mining, competing directly with the previously passed American law approving space resource mining.

America’s national security will only be weakened if other countries are at the forefront of new missions—and if they benefit from innovations that the United States would miss out on. In this increasingly competitive environment, our focus must shift away from simply preserving current capabilities. We have to start thinking about how we can get ahead of the pack. This will require new systems, technologies, and approaches that will primarily come out of the private sector.

As the ASCFEA will benefit the commercial space sector, it fits well into this new framework for national security, with both direct and indirect benefits.

Direct Benefits of Robust Commercial Space

The direct benefits come through the strengthened ability of the commercial sector to provide needed capabilities to the military. The commercial sector helps underpin America’s defense remote sensing capabilities. However, as foreign competitors catch up with U.S. capabilities, America’s advantage continues to decline. To finance innovations, the American remote sensing industry needs as large a market as possible.

To that end, the ASCFEA is a dramatic improvement. Today, the oversight regime is overly burdensome, with American companies prevented from selling capabilities abroad that already exist on the international market. The ASCFEA does not completely remove national security considerations in determining remote sensing licenses, but it certainly improves the process. It creates transparency, so that companies can better understand why a license is denied. It consolidates the authorities to make national security decisions into a single point of contact—the Department of Commerce (DOC). Most importantly, however, the ASCFEA pegs restrictions to what exists on the international remote sensing market (or through other tools like aircraft or drones). The bill prevents the government from restricting American companies from doing what is already done abroad. This will make American remote sensing companies more competitive, which will, by extension, improve the capabilities they provide to the U.S. government.

But remote sensing is not the only area the ASCFEA helps. Today, there are a range of new missions from on-orbit servicing to space resource harvesting that are not currently within an oversight regime. While this does not prevent companies from undertaking missions per se—see Moon Express’ private rover mission to the moon—it does create uncertainty about whether the U.S. government would move to block missions as they develop. The ASCFEA creates a light-touch oversight system for these missions, allowing the DOC to grant certification.

This certainty would allow commercial space companies to pursue new missions that may develop into improved capabilities for U.S. national security. Things like on-orbit servicing, for example, could prove beneficial if used to refuel or maintain the large, intricate satellites the United States relies on for its space-based tools. As space defense acquisitions tend to suffer from delays, cost overruns, and cancellations, the progress of commercial solutions will provide a backstop to government efforts in these mission areas. Additionally, it is not easy to predict how private innovation will alter or improve space-based capabilities. That being said, allowing the commercial industry to explore new ideas and missions will likely result in unanticipated benefits.

Indirect Benefits of Robust Commercial Space

While the ASCFEA is not aimed at every aspect of the commercial space economy, it will improve the overall health of the U.S. market. Reducing burdensome regulations on remote sensing will help grow a large section of the wider space economy—the remote sensing sector was 14% of the space economy in 2016. Demand for emerging industries is hard to predict, but such industries have a better chance of growing in a world where the ASCFEA is law.

With such growth will come increased launch demand. Launch costs have diminished with the entrance of new launch companies into the market, but there is plenty of room for further reductions. New demand will help fuel the investment in launch markets needed to achieve those reductions. If prices fall far enough, cheaper launches will open space to more investors and innovators.

America’s national security will be strengthened by both trends. Cheaper launches, developed because U.S. launch companies gain experience and can finance innovation, will allow the U.S. military to launch needed satellites at lower prices and a quicker pace. Updating capabilities will become easier, as will reconstituting space capabilities quickly if necessary.

On the non-launch side, a healthier space economy will allow more individuals, companies, and research facilities to test technologies and systems in space. These experiments may result in a better way of doing business as usual, or introduce as-of-yet unexplored tools that the military can use. This feedback loop between between greater demand and lower costs, if sparked, would help the United States stay ahead of its rivals’ space capabilities. Together, these direct and indirect benefits will help maintain America’s edge in space.

Risks of Inaction

This is not to say that the entirety of America’s national security and leadership in space hinges on the ASCFEA. But it is important to look at the alternatives. If this bill is not passed, what are the risks of inaction?

For remote sensing, inaction will continue to shrink America’s capability advantages. American companies and experts may move overseas as they are offered better opportunities by other countries. The Department of Defense (DOD) could of course attempt to fund capabilities for its purposes, but any issues with these systems would be very problematic if there was limited commercial capability to provide an alternative. Additionally, there would be limited opportunity for unanticipated breakthroughs, as American companies would focus on what the DOD needs and less on alternative investments. In the long-run, the United States may even find itself further behind on the remote sensing curve.

For new missions, other countries may also take the lead if the United States does not provide certainty to its companies about what can or cannot be done in and beyond orbit. Missions like on-orbit services could go the way of synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which was constrained by U.S. regulations in the 1990s. Today, most of the market for SAR exists outside of the United States. The lack of building initial expertise early on, as well as uncertainty about regulations, meant that the U.S. conceded the industry to foreign providers. For new missions, ceding the market may mean reducing America’s skills and technologies in the next essential security arena.

We Need Commercial Space

Outer space is heading the way of computers and the Internet. What once made sense to keep constrained to government and military systems is now breaking out—domestically and internationally. When this happens, it’s better to foster an environment in which technological progress keeps us ahead of rivals abroad, rather than overly restrict markets and tools.

The ASCFEA does not tackle all the issues that need to be addressed. There are still some lingering export control issues, even after recent reforms. The bill does not deal with pressing space situational awareness issues, or potential spectrum interference problems. But it tackles two major issues and takes a step in the right direction. Congress should pass the ASCFEA, sooner rather than later.