When queried about the progress of the U.S. Space Force’s commercial space strategy, Gen. Chance Saltzman, the top commander, did not mince words. Speaking at the recent AMOS space domain awareness conference in Hawaii, Saltzman characterized the latest draft of this highly anticipated strategy as rich in style but wanting in substance.
Intended to shed light on the Space Force’s approach to identifying activities suitable for commercial satellite services, the document, according to Saltzman, is replete with “aspirational platitudes” rather than concrete definitions and guidelines.
Saltzman underscored that while inspirational rhetoric about partnering and collaborating has its place, the strategy needs to offer practical, actionable guidance.
This perspective from Saltzman is hardly surprising. For years, industry leaders have lamented that interactions with government buyers tend to be pep talks rather than discussions about practical measures or solutions for how commercial services could help fill gaps in military space capabilities.
The Space Force, like the broader U.S. military, heavily relies on commercial entities for a diverse array of services during both peacetime and wartime. The new strategy is expected to provide specific guidance on utilizing emerging space industry services, including rapid-revisit satellite imaging and low-Earth orbit satellite communications, many of which have only recently become available.
Expressing dissatisfaction with the initial draft, Saltzman sent it back for revisions, emphasizing the necessity for the strategy to offer clarity to Space Force buyers and the industry.
The strategy should define, for example, which satellite services fall under the “inherently governmental” category and which can be outsourced. Without a comprehensive plan delineating this distinction, the procurement of commercial services could become “messy,” he said, and marked by ad hoc projects.
Chamber of Commerce concerns
The remote sensing sector is a segment of the space industry that has been particularly frustrated by the slow embrace of commercial services. Acknowledging these concerns, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence solicited industry feedback in August regarding the challenges companies face attempting to provide products and services to intelligence and defense agencies.
On Sept. 22, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s response was made public. The Chamber’s letter to the ODNI was forthright, stating, “Despite repeated recognition by senior leaders within the U.S. Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense of the value provided by the U.S. space industry in terms of remote sensing data and analytical services for national security, disaster response, diplomatic missions, and legislative directives, the government has been slow to establish programs, mechanisms, and processes to leverage this existing capability.”
The disconnect between high-level rhetoric supporting commercial services and the tangible obstacles companies face has been studied and documented extensively, according to the Chamber, making it imperative to transition from analysis to action.
Among the areas needing reform are frequent delays in issuing guidance, setting requirements, releasing requests for proposals, and transitioning mature capabilities from study and pilot programs to operational support contracts. The letter emphasized that procurement inefficiencies create uncertainty in a market heavily reliant on private funding and hinder field operators from receiving the support they require.
Strategy ‘by year’s end’
Saltzman acknowledged that the Space Force has yet to address many of the industry’s pressing questions, and the forthcoming commercial space strategy should provide some of those answers.
“We don’t even have a clear definition of what a commercial service is,” he remarked, adding that until this foundation is laid, the document remains more aspirational than actionable.
He refrained from setting hard deadlines for the completion and publication of the strategy.
“I certainly hope to have something released to the community by year’s end.”
This article originally appeared in the ‘On National Security’ commentary feature in the October 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.