The U.S. military is heavily reliant on space, but its ability to operate there is becoming more constrained. For decades, the military faced neither significant budget limits on deploying satellites, nor significant threats to them once deployed. Today, it faces both. In a recent article for National Defense, Sandra Erwin reports that the defense establishment might not be prepared to change its way of doing business to mitigate the costs involved in deploying new satellites in a changed environment. Erwin writes:
The government is still conflicted about privatizing space activities, however, and continues to study the pros and cons. The Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles has piqued the ears of industry executives when it announced it would consider turning over the operation of the military’s Wideband Global Satcom constellation to a commercial firm. That could be an attractive proposition for an Air Force that is overstretched and lacks sufficient manpower to manage its vast space apparatus.
While privatization in theory might make sense, it is not an easy transition for a military that has been raised to build its own satellite constellations and to not have to worry about how much they cost.
The military’s space challenges are not simply business problems though. After being dominated by the superpowers throughout the Cold War, space is becoming a more competitive environment. Where two countries once dominated, ten had access to independent space launch capabilities as of 2013. Countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Pakistan are expected to join that exclusive group soon as well.
China’s destruction of one of its own obsolete satellites using a ground-launched anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in 2007 was supposed to have been a wake up call. The danger was not simply that Beijing could hypothetically destroy a U.S. military satellite in a crisis, thus leaving American forces bereft of the space-based intelligence and communications capabilities on which they rely. The Chinese ASAT test also created, by some counts, 3,000 pieces of orbital debris. This debris, which will likely remain in orbit for an extended period of time, poses an ongoing threat to any number of satellites—including the military’s—because even small pieces of it moving at high velocity in low-earth orbit can do irreparable damage to very expensive equipment.
The military remains unsure what to do about the problem though. As Erwin writes, nearly a decade after Beijing’s ASAT test, “Discussions revolve around pivotal questions such as whether the Pentagon should take a leap of faith and outsource space services, and whether it should abandon expensive satellites programs in favor of lower cost alternatives.” If the military choose satellites over less expensive options, and the private space industry is a cost effective way to get those satellites into orbit, then the Pentagon should take that “leap of faith.”
The question remains, however, whether either the Department of Defense or its congressional overseers are culturally prepared for such a leap. Writing for Forbes, defense industry consultant Loren Thompson offered five reasons why he thought Silicon Valley was unlikely to do business with the Pentagon despite recent entreaties from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Thompson’s list had its flaws, but he made several useful points. Essentially, private companies are there to make a profit, but because, as Thompson sees it, “Bureaucrats don’t trust market forces,” too high a profit margin for any company is likely to be seen as a sign of shady activity. If those bureaucrats demand investigations, it may subsequently lead to an increase in the regulatory burden. An increase in the regulatory burden means the price of services will likely go up as well, thus negating the savings outsourcing was supposed to generate in the first place. If those cultural tendencies cannot be changed, the military is better off going with “lower cost alternatives” rather than continuing to expend scarce resources on expensive assets that will become increasingly vulnerable over time.