Pentagon looks to standardize its relationship with space companies

A new strategy from the Defense Department outlines how the agency plans to sync up its interests with the commercial space companies, it works with.

A new strategy from the Defense Department outlines how the agency plans to sync up its interests with the commercial space companies, with which it works. The first of its kind 2024 Commercial Space Integration Strategy, looks to integrate commercial solutions into DoD’s national security space architecture. To learn more about it, Federal News Network’s Eric White spoke with one of the authors of the strategy, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. 

Interview Transcript: 

Eric White As do we. So why don’t we just kind of start it from the beginning and just lay out from the 40,000 foot view? Since we’re talking about space, what does this strategy set out to do and how did it come about.

John Plumb Yeah, absolutely. So Eric, we are at a time of really fast and critical change in the national security space environment. You can see this everywhere. You can see it in the way space is being used in the battle in Ukraine. You can see it in the way that the commercial space enterprise is really just accelerating. And you can watch launches on an almost, you know, weekly basis, if not faster, and you can see it in the way the governments around the world are really examining how they can use space for national security. And when the Department of Defense looks at that, we realize that a lot of that innovation and speed is in the U.S. commercial sector. It’s a big driver of the U.S. economy, frankly, at this point. And we want to harness that. You know, the Pentagon’s not always that great at doing things quickly or being super innovative quickly. And so if we can figure out a way to harness what the commercial companies are doing to be able to close their business case and use that for national security purposes, we absolutely have to do that. We have to get the best use of your taxpayer dollars and move as quickly as we could to keep up in this at this critical time.

Eric White Let’s get into the strategy itself. I imagine a lot of this is going to fall on you and your officer’s shoulders, but who’s going to be responsible for actually carrying out what this strategy calls for? And on that note, what does it call for in order to accomplish that?

John Plumb Yeah. So a few pieces there. So one, the way this works is the strategy is published basically is the secretary of defense providing direction to the entire department, not just the Space Force, not just my office for space policy, but the entire department on how to think about and approach commercial space. And I should just be clear here, that commercial sector we’re talking about is different than the defense industrial base, right? A lot of our listeners on Film News Network are going to be thinking about primes, which are part of the defense industrial base, commercial sector, or those companies that are selling things on the commercial market that we might be able to use as well. And what we’re looking at is setting out basically telling the department here are basically four priorities that you need to be following and adhering to in order to better integrate commercial space into our solutions. One, we’re going to work to ensure access to commercial solutions across the spectrum of conflict. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean, it doesn’t really do the Department of Defense that much good to buy as a service or a solution that only works in peacetime. It needs to be available in a crisis and frankly, needs to be available in a wartime conflict. And so if we’re going to enter into contracts or other mechanisms with commercial space companies to help the Department of Defense, we have to know that there’s going to be available not just in peacetime, but in crisis, in conflict. One way to help us do that is a second line of effort here, which is to ensure that we are integrating with these commercial companies and providers prior to a conflict, I would say a legacy way of thinking about this would say, well, maybe we’ll just buy some additional, satellite communications bandwidth that we would only use in a crisis. Well, that means that when the crisis comes, you don’t even know how to flex to use that bandwidth. The operators in the commercial side don’t know how to switch over to allow use that bandwidth. It’s not a great model for today’s environment. We want to do is bring operators and other commercial solutions in to our daily operations, work with them then, and even train with them so that they know what they might be needed of in in crisis or in conflict. Third, and this is on the Department of Defense. We talk a lot about protecting defend. And how are we going to make sure that, if we’re entering into relationships with commercial companies, that they can be de-risked, and we’ve got always, of course, in the Department of Defense the option to use military force, but that’s certainly not our primary means are going to be a primary line of effort for protecting defending commercial systems. We’ve broken that out into three basic things. One, you know, the entire U.S. government works on creating norms of responsible behavior in space to try to make space a stable and safe domain for anyone to operate in. Two as we find intelligence about threats to space systems, we need mechanisms to share that information, even if it’s classified with these commercial companies. And three, there are forms of financial protection available in the air domain and in the C domain. And the department is going to be exploring whether those types of things should also be applicable to the space. To me. And then the last piece that we’re doing to integrate commercial solutions is we will continue to look at ways to find innovative technology and invest in those tech. Allergies that might have the potential to support the joint force. And there’s a number of tools that the department has to do that.

Eric White We’re speaking with Assistant secretary of defense for space policy, Doctor John Plumb. Lot to process there. But you made it a point to say this is not the defense industrial base. You know it. Nowhere else does the government rely more on getting or enacting its strategies and policies from commercial entities than in the space realm, what can you say about how important it has become and that it requires this sort of strategy laid out because of that reliance on the commercial sector?

John Plumb Well, I think he framed it quite well. I think if I were to just kind of flip what you said, we would be crazy not to be trying to do this right. We are very reliant on the commercial sector already, at least for launch. Now, of course, the department buys those launch services. But, you know, Space-x is a private company. There are commercial companies do commercial launches, for example, ULA, those commercial launches as well. And so if we are buying launches from commercial services, you can’t get to space without launch. So right away, you can see that we’re already kind of on the hook. But I think the really the reason that is so entwined is because the two things are happening at the same time, right? We’re stood up a space force. We stood up. Space command is a combatant command. We created my position. We’ve as assistant secretary of defense for space policy, and there’s an assistant secretary of the Air Force for space Acquisition. All four of these things were just created in the last few years under the realization that space is becoming more and more important to national security, its operational domain, just like any other domain like land, sea and air. These things are happening all at the same time that the commercial space sector is really becoming energized, space is becoming democratized. And so for decades, space was really just the purview of United States, Russia, China, and, you know, large nation states. And now that you have companies that can do these things, perhaps faster, definitely, sometimes cheaper, and maybe with more innovation, then it’d be crazy not to take advantage of it. And I think it’s the fact that these things are happening at the same time that makes that dependance so much stronger than it is in other domains.

Eric White Got it. And was there any consultation with, representatives in the commercial sector when coming up with a strategy or as you just mentioned, you know, a lot of those, a lot of those positions were just created over the last few years. So obviously you all have experience working with the commercial sector already. So did you just rely on your own knowledge that you’ve acquired so far?

John Plumb No, that would have been a terrible idea. Right? We have to do a lot of outreach and do a lot of tabletop and exercises with those partners that are going to be affected by the strategy. So that’s both the stakeholders across the Department of Defense, but also it’s the commercial sector. And I’m really proud of my team. They went out and held information sessions, the commercial sector. They held tabletop exercises, the commercial sector and tried to figure out what of those pieces of the commercial space sector would be interested in. Right. It’s in just a one way street. If we’re going to enter in these type of relationships, both sides need to have some gain there. So I think we did a really good job of level setting with, with many different companies of different sizes and really kind of been out there talking to people about it for over the past year while we’ve been writing this. You know, writing a big document like this for the first time is, is a lot of work, and you have to make sure it’s socialized both across and up and down your chain of command and others to make sure that everyone is on board. Because if folks aren’t on board, then, you know you can write a policy and they’ll just follow the thud. You got to get folks energized and understand that this is important and agree so that by the time the secretary signed that, they understand, this is this is the direction we’re headed. I think we’ve done that.

Eric White And let’s discuss on how this strategy fits overall into DoD national security goals, as we’ve already belabored the point of reliance on the commercial sector. You know, at the end of the day, they are a company, so they have to make money, you know, how do you make sure that you know, your goals don’t counteract with a commercial company that’s saying, you know, hey, we may have to sell to some near pure adversaries just to stay afloat.

John Plumb Okay, let me just break that into a couple a couple pieces. So first of all, we do have to have access to commercial companies if we’re entering these contracts. And we think the easiest way at the moment to do that, or the most sure way to do that is just to enter in a contract that both parties agree to. If the government’s a smart buyer, we can structure contracts in a way to make sure things will be available in crisis and conflict. And I will also say that it is a very routine for contracts to also be structured so that if a company is sold or goes out of business, the US national security piece is protected and the DoD continues to have access to that. There’s no case where that would be sold to, to a potential adversary, of course. But it might be sold to, a partner or allied country. And in those cases, when there’s a national security component, there are special, special boards set up to oversee the protection of that national security aspect. So there’s a lot of mechanisms already in place. And this is one of the things that was really interesting when we started this strategy. I don’t think there was a good baseline of knowledge, both in the department or in the commercial sector as. How these types of pieces work, and I think we’ve done a good job providing that type of information to anyone who wants it to show these. These pieces actually fit together pretty well. And a lot of these things are mechanisms that have been in place or have existed. And now we’re trying to say, well, we should do this at scale is we know these relationships. You know, the one thing I would say is we’ve made this strategy completely unclassified. And I think that’s important. We need to hold ourselves accountable to the strategy. And one way to do that is to make it unclassified to the Congress. And the commercial sector can also use it as a way of influencing and making sure we are keeping true to this. I think that’s a pretty important point, and I’m pretty proud of that as well. And I also say, you know, writing a strategy is hard. Implementing is harder. So we just all have to keep the pressure on and make sure that we’re moving in the right direction. I think the speed factor alone, especially in the face of kind of a rising China, is so important to the department that I think that this should be a thing that we start to incorporate more and more as we go about our budget builds in our daily work.

Eric White And I, you know, it is a strategy. And as things change, which they are evolving every day in the space realm, is there a constant update that is going to be needed? And are we going to see this, you know, a strategy every year, or are we going to see long term strategies put out similar to what we see? You know, based on, you know, national defense strategies and things like that?

John Plumb So first of all, every year, no, we would never get any work done if we had to keep writing the strategies every year. So no, and I think it should last longer than that. But I do think, you know, this is the first one of this kind, but I do believe that in 4 or 5 years it probably should be updated. That’s the natural order of things as people adjust and as the department takes stock and says, okay, how is this going? What needs to change? It would only make sense to write a new one or update the existing one. And that will actually be a measure of success. Eric. Because once you get to the point where these higher level documents are pressing down, getting feedback from the building and then evolving, you know that it’s baked into the way people are doing business. And I think that would be really, that would be a real measure of success.

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