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Air&Space Forces Magazine: Space Force’s New Commercial Strategy Emphasizes SATCOM and SDA

Originally published: Air & Space Forces Magazine

April 10, 2024 | By Greg Hadley

The Space Force will integrate commercial satellites and systems into a broad range of missions, starting with satellite communications and space domain awareness, according to the new Commercial Space Strategy released April 10.  


The new strategy reaffirms the Defense Department’s broad Commercial Space Integration Strategy released last week, aiming to leverage commercial space capabilities in a way that goes beyond conventional Pentagon-industry partnership.  


Speaking at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman cited the example of commercial coal stations proving vital to the U.S. Navy during the Spanish American War.


“The Navy’s operational infrastructure at that time was not complete without the commercial services completely incorporated,” Saltzman said. “In space operations, we have become more comfortable with using commercial capabilities to add capacity than we have with fully integrating commercial capabilities into our force design.” 


In a foreword to the strategy, Saltzman and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition Frank Calvelli added that they envision a future state when the Space Force has “hybrid space architectures” with U.S. military, commercial, and allied space systems. 


Saltzman noted in his speech that the strategy does not dictate exactly how those hybrid architectures will be crafted or how much money will go to different mission areas. 


However, it does lists and ranks eight mission areas in terms of commercial market maturity and the urgency of military requirements:   


  1. Satellite communications 

  2. Space domain awareness 

  3. Space Access, Mobility, and Logistics 

  4. Tactical Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Tracking 

  5. Environmental Monitoring 

  6. Cyberspace 

  7. Command and control 

  8. Position, navigation, and timing 


There are still a few mission areas where the Space Force is not looking for commercial capabilities: missile warning, electromagnetic warfare, nuclear detonation, and “combat power projection.” 


The strategy also notes that SATCOM, SDA, and launch already have mature commercial markets, while the rest are still emerging. In some cases, the military will be the “anchor customer” as the market develops. 


SATCOM is already a major focus of Space Force investment, with some $3.7 billion included in its 2025 budget request for projects including the Space Development Agency’s data transport layer, Evolved Strategic SATCOM for nuclear command and control, and the new jam-resistant Protected Tactical Services (PTS) program.


But satellite communication bandwidth requirements go well beyond those needs, and commercial SATCOM services are increasingly available around the world, led by SpaceX’s massive Starlink constellation, which has proved invaluable to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Other companies are planning competing satellite networks, using similar distributed constellations of satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide digital services.  


The Space Force strategy wants to leverage those networks to whatever extent is possible, with priority given to “capabilities that can easily integrate into a federated system of systems.” 


Space domain awareness, the No. 2 priority in the strategy, is not yet as mature a market as SATCOM, but the growing number of satellites in orbit and the rising threats posed by anti-space capabilities developed by China and Russia make this a potent area for development. At the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Security Forum last month, Saltzman alluded to commercial potential when he said “we need to have access to and invest in actionable space domain awareness.”  


In February, Space Operations Command’s Lt. Gen. David N. Miller made a similar comment, suggesting the Space Force could rely on commercial capabilities to process and make sense of the vast amounts of data coming from sensors in space and on the ground. Small startups like Scout Space aim to get in on this business, developing space-based sensors that could contribute to space-domain awareness. 


Space Access, Mobility, and Logistics includes everything from launch—a well-established commercial capability—to in-orbit services and refueling for satellites—a nascent capability that is still being developed. The strategy also highlighted that the mission area will include tactically responsive space capabilities, the service’s effort to be able to launch and operate a satellite within a matter of days.  

“USSF recognizes it may be the anchor customer, at least temporarily, in some areas of the space mobility and logistics market,” the strategy states. 

To reach deeper integration in its key mission areas, the Space Force strategy lays out four lines of effort: 


  • Collaborative Transparency: “All stakeholders must be aware of the capabilities and limitations of their partners if they are to work together to solve our operational challenges,” Saltzman said. In particular, the strategy calls for the service to “integrate Guardians into the commercial sector.” 

  • Operational and Technical Integration: The longest section of the strategy lists and ranks the mission areas. It also calls for “developing the policies, processes, technical standards, and  procedures that allow the commercial sector to integrate data and hardware with the Space Force.” 

  • Risk Management: While the DOD’s commercial space strategy explicitly states that the U.S. may use military force to protect commercial assets “in appropriate circumstances,” the Space Force strategy merely notes that the service will “establish a process to share threat information with commercial companies that permits the timely dissemination of actionable threat data.” Concerns about commercial satellites and systems becoming targets in a conflict have been a frequent theme among industry officials. 

  • Secure the Future: While some commercial markets are more mature, the Space Force wants to invest in promising technologies that are still developing in the commercial world. “We must continuously assess the future operating environment, what missions will be needed in what we need to perform, what threats will we face, and what technologies can we bring to bear to meet our operational challenges?” Saltzman said. “We know we will need substantial support from the space industry to answer these vital questions.” 

Relying on commercial capabilities carries risk—for Starlink in particular, the controversial behavior of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has raised questions about how much sway private companies can hold. Yet such risks “pale in comparison to risks of maintaining the status quo,” the strategy concludes. 


How fast the Space Force can change that status quo remains to be seen, but Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said leaders are confident they don’t need any special authorities or reforms to implement the strategy. 


“I don’t think we need anything new,” Kendall told reporters. “We need to work our way through with industry on how to do it as effectively as possible in a way that is equitable between industries interests and ours. So I’m not terribly concerned about the contracting side of it. We’ve got a lot of flexibility there.” 


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