Author | Editor: Astorino-Courtois, A. & Bragg, B. (NSI, Inc).
There was considerable variation in how the expert contributors interpreted this question, and in their assessments of the future relationship between commercial and government space enterprises. While the contributors who saw commercial entities as solid partners of the government were, with one exception, representatives of commercial space, respondents from think tank, commercial, and government communities tended to view commercial actors as potential disruptors (39%). However, the majority response among the expert contributors overall (44%) was that commercial entities might serve as both disruptors and partners.
There are two lines of reasoning for this argument. First, based on the perspective that “disruptions” can have positive as well as negative consequences, some contributors saw disruptive actors as potentially valuable allies to government. Second, others argued that technologies or actions that may be disruptive in the short-term can evolve into ordinary or standard practices in the longer-term.3 The contributors also warn, however, that whether commercial space is ultimately a disruptor or a solid partner in space will in large part depend on how the United States government (USG) decides to respond..
Furthermore, commercial actors’ organizational advantages with respect to innovation make it likely that they will become the dominant actors in space in the medium- to long-term. The effect this will have on US national security interests will be largely determined by how the USG deals with these changes. There are significant potential security benefits to be gained by partnering with commercial actors. At the same time, encouraging the growth of the commercial space sector, and relying on its capabilities and services, reduces the USG’s level of direct control. Regardless, the USG may not have much option—commercial space actors are here, and their relative capabilities are growing. If the USG attempts to limit or control commercial space actors to the point that they cannot meet their own objectives, there is nothing to prevent them from moving their endeavors to another country. This would effectively remove all but the most indirect or extreme forms of influence the USG has, and position commercial space actors to become a significant disruptor of US security interests.
Contributors identified disruptors as actors whose behaviors and innovations trigger broad change in a system. In the context of this report’s question of focus, a commercial disruptor is a company that significantly alters (for good or for bad) the ability of the US to achieve its national security space objectives. A disruption changes the nature of the relationship between the USG and commercial space actors. The potential for disruption is determined by the extent to which USG and commercial space are dependent on, or can determine, the activities of the other. Of course, the emergence of a commercial space sector is, in and of itself, a disruption to USG dominance in space activity and technology. The question is: to what effect?.
The nature of the relationship between the commercial sector and the US national security community is changing rapidly, and suggests that we may be on the cusp of a major disruption in the way US space has operated for the last 60 years. According to Dr. Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin, the emergence of “angel investors and venture capitalists wanting to make huge profits” by investing in new commercial space activities has been a major driver of this change. Dr. Luca Rossettini of D-Orbit calls out “new space” start-ups, in particular, as potential disruptors as they both increase their capacities for rapid innovation and become less dependent on the USG for operating funds. It is interesting to note that this is happening at the same that the USG is increasingly looking to the commercial sector for services and innovation. As such, Joshua Hampson of the Niskanen Center believes that, 25+ years from now, the USG “may be more reliant on commercial providers for capabilities than those entities will be on the government for funding.”
The availability of private capital to commercial space could spur additional disruptions in the space service provider-user relationship. Namely, if commercial entities rather than the USG are the ones developing and operating cutting-edge space capabilities, USG attempts to regulate the sale and transfer of those capabilities is likely to become both a more complex and more contentious issue than it is today. Simply put, the interests of commercial entities—in other words, their profitability-centric business agendas—cannot be assumed to be in complete accord with the USG’s national security
Several contributors comment on the impact of USG commercial regulations as a type of perennial disruptor,5 which if lifted will increase innovativeness and growth in private space sector. The ViaSat, Inc. contributors note that while the USG has “directed” space innovation until recently, today more innovation is occurring in areas in which the government has had significantly less involvement (e.g., ground segments of space systems like ATMs, etc.). They make this point in reference to USG-controlled GPS, arguing that, “since the start, the USG has gone through GPS-1 and now GPS-3. In a 35 [to] 40-year period, we’ve had three generations of space innovation. On the ground, we’ve had an infinite number of innovations.” The contributors from ViaSat, Inc. do concede that some government direction is not a bad thing, but stress that there must be “a balance of the mix” between commercial requirements for profitability and USG concern with regulating access to high-tech capabilities.
In addition to discussing what might make an actor a potential disruptor, contributors emphasize the need to consider what is being disrupted, and how that disruption could affect US national security objectives. Table 1 above provides a summary of space-related capabilities in which disruption and/or private-government partnership is currently happening or expected to occur.
Dr. John Karpiscak III of the United States Army Geospatial Center identifies information as one of the critical commodities that the US will struggle to control in the coming decades. Contributors highlight three particular struggles involving space: information ownership and control, data collection, and space situational awareness (SSA). Karpiscak III discusses the challenges with data ownership and management, in terms of the extent to which commercial space entities will maintain control over who accesses their data or whether they “can be coerced, manipulated, or incentivized [by the USG] to share data with friendlies and deny access to, say, gray or red forces.” Several contributors6 also identify advances in commercial information collection and processing, including remote sensing, as potential disruptors to current practices as they make what today may be considered classified information available in the public domain. Finally, Lieutenant Colonel (USAF ret.) Deron Jackson of the United States Air Force Academy notes that SSA capabilities operated and owned by private companies could transfer tracking of space objects from being done “largely by a government-heavy regime to being done by some regime that’s now entirely private.”
The contributors differ, however, in their assessments of the degree to which these developments will challenge or ease the ability of the US to achieve its national security objectives. Several contributors7 see the improvements in commercial remote sensing as a potential solution to government needs. While Deborah Westphal of Toffler Associates and Karpiscak III acknowledge the potential benefit of this, they also raise concern about the loss of information control it implies. Finally, Dr. Damon Coletta of the United States Air Force Academy suggests that wider access to high-resolution imagery may “disrupt the safety of troops on the ground if suddenly a raft of competing state entities suddenly had access to levels of resolution that only the US government had beforehand.”
In the medium- to long-term, contributors suggest that increases in the amount of infrastructure (both in space and on the ground) could serve as an additional source of disruption. Karpiscak III argues that developments in commercial launch capabilities could make it possible for nearly anyone to launch items into space, without necessarily having to gain “anyone’s permission or consent.” Inevitably, as more actors access space, the amount of infrastructure in space will increase as well (Hitchens; Nield). Increased infrastructure will in turn stimulate the development of space-based power and transportation for on-orbit servicing (Nield; Weeden), as well as increased maneuverability (Jackson). Finally, while expanded infrastructure in space is identified as a potential source of disruption, the implications for US national security are not always clear. This may be because many of the capabilities discussed by the contributors are dual-use technologies, which many of the contributors identify as posing challenges for national security.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the contributors were less specific about potential sources of disruption beyond the next 25 years. Resource extraction and debris removal were the only specific capabilities mentioned in this timeframe (Hampson; Hitchens). As Karpiscak III points out: “If you look at rates of technological advance in a lot of the world economies and developments like cellphones and tablets, it’s very difficult to predict a lot of this.”
Despite this uncertainty, many contributors expect time itself to have an effect on the potential for disruption. When considering the system change aspect of disruption,10 most contributors believe that the sources and magnitude of disruptions will diminish over time as markets and commercial entities expand and mature. However, when focusing on the control aspect of disruption, Hampson sees the expansion of the commercial space sector as likely to increase disruption. He suggests that “a contemporary model exists in the computing/software industry today” where, although “companies cannot disregard US policy, [they] are large enough to…lobby against policies they disagree with and independent enough in funding to take their views to the public.”
Table 1 above clearly demonstrates considerable variation in the contributors’ evaluations of the potential for government-commercial partnerships across both time and specific capabilities. This variation relates closely to the idea that innovation is intrinsically linked to disruption. The USG benefits from the innovations produced by disruptors (Jah; Rossettini), yet the more successful these actors are, the less controllable they, and their capabilities, become..
Strong partnerships and collaboration are built on mutual interest. A good percentage of USG objectives in space involve national security and defense, whereas for commercial actors a business and regulatory environment that allows profitability is critical (Hampson; Stadter). Looking further out into the future, Marc Berkowitz of Lockheed Martin suggests that the near-term establishment of routine partnerships could help decrease the extent of disruption in the longer-term. Hampson predicts that, as the orbital environment becomes busier and riskier, commercial actors will be motivated to partner with the USG to reduce the risk of “being placed under burdensome restrictions by causing problems.” Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson of the United States Air Force Air Command and Staff College posits that, as the value of economic activities such as space mining and the number of US citizens in space increase, “[t]here will be a very strong push for national security services to be extended toward US citizens and their property in space, and a push to make the independent space corps look more like the US Coast and US Navy, with a strong emphasis on safety of navigation for licit commerce.”
Several contributors12 indicate that commercial actors want to partner with the USG, but that barriers to solid partnerships do exist. On the government side, contributors point to regulation and security concerns (Faulconer Consulting Group; Hitchens); organizational impediments (Garretson); and lack of outreach to, and communication with, the commercial sector (Weeden). The need for profitability, and the freedom to sell their technology (Armor; Stadter), are mentioned as disincentives for commercial actors to work with the USG. On top of this, the lines of communication between the USG and commercial space sector are weak, as is the understanding of the other’s objectives and constraints (Garreston; Stadter).
If national security constraints impede the development of new technologies, as Theresa Hitchens of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland believes has already happened with remote sensing and SAR, innovative commercial actors may abandon the US. Dr. George Nield of the Federal Aviation Administration points out that this is something that “we ignore at our peril because, again, the capability is going to be out there in the rest of the world. If the US chooses not to take advantage of it, we’re likely to be left behind,” a view echoed by Jim Norman of NASA. Even if companies do not relocate out of the US, we should not forget Hampson’s point that, over time, commercial space actors will likely become large enough to wield influence over policy and public opinion. Both of these outcomes would signal a loss of USG influence over some activities in the space domain.
Considering the contributors’ responses as a whole, it appears that “disruption” is considered a necessary part of the development of space capabilities and activities. Commercial actors’ organizational advantages with respect to innovation make it likely that they will become the dominant actors in space in the medium- to long-term. The effect this will have on US national security interests will be largely determined by how the USG deals with these changes. There are significant potential security benefits to be gained by partnering with commercial actors. At the same time, encouraging the growth of the commercial space sector, and relying on its capabilities and services, reduces the USG’s level of direct control. Regardless, the USG may not have much option—commercial space actors are here, and their relative capabilities are growing. If the USG attempts to limit or control them to the point that they cannot meet their objectives, there is nothing to prevent them from moving their endeavors to another country. This would effectively remove all but the most indirect or extreme forms of influence the USG has, and position commercial space actors to become a significant disruptor of US security interests.
Major General (USAF ret.) James B. Armor, Jr.2 (Orbital ATK); Marc Berkowitz (Lockheed Martin); Caelus Partners, LLC; Dr. Damon Coletta and Lieutenant Colonel (USAF ret.) Deron Jackson (United States Air Force Academy); Faulconer Consulting Group; Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson (United States Air Force Air Command and Staff College); Gilmour Space Technologies, Australia; Joshua Hampson (Niskanen Center); Harris Corporation; Theresa Hitchens (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland); Dr. Moriba Jah (University of Texas at Austin); Dr. John Karpiscak III (United States Army Geospatial Center); Dr. George Nield (Federal Aviation Administration); Jim Norman (NASA Headquarters); Dr. Luca Rossettini (D-Orbit, Italy.); Dr. Patrick A. Stadter (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory); ViaSat, Inc.; Charity Weeden (Satellite Industry Association, Canada); Deborah Westphal (Toffler Associates)