Bill would mandate a streamlined satellite program

Air Force GPS IIF satellite

Military leaders have talked in recent years about cutting the costs of satellite operations and in recent days about the importance of maintaining control over the space domain. Those sentiments could soon get a push from Congress, if an amendment to the Senate bill reauthorizing the nation’s intelligence programs holds up.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and two co-sponsors have attached an amendment to the bill calling for an across-the-board approach to maintaining the United States’ satellite architecture and doing it while keeping costs down.

“This bill sends a strong message that we need to have a strategy for our space architecture that safeguards our national security by taking advantage of cutting-edge technology,” Warner said in a statement. “The U.S. is in danger of losing our technological edge due to our current overreliance on a big-government acquisition model.” He went on to call that model “increasingly unsustainable,” blaming rising costs, long development times, a lack of competition and the government’s failure to adopt private-sector innovations. He even cited the need to be able to counter anti-satellite weapons.

His comments match those of recent vintage from Pentagon leaders and researchers. The Air Force and Defense Advanced Projects Agency have talked for years about cutting satellite costs, and have been exploring a variety of options, including airborne launch systems, CubeSats and other nanosatellites, as well as letting military payloads hitch rides with commercial satellites.

The Air Force also is opening up launches of its big-ticket satellites to competition, having recently certified Elon Musk’s SpaceX to compete for launches for its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Until that certification, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, had a virtual monopoly on EELV launches. SpaceX claims it can launch the satellites for considerably less.

As for the rising threats from space, that’s something the Pentagon has been calling attention to, most recently at this week’s GEOINT symposium in Washington, where Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work announced a new public/private center to address threats, particularly from China and Russia, to U.S. satellite constellations.

Warner’s amendment acknowledges that space, once pretty much the sole domain of the United States, is becoming a contested environment, and calls for a few specific steps. It would require the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to develop a strategy for securing the nation’s satellite architecture, ensuring that bit meets peacetime and wartime needs, and do it on a reasonable budget.

It would direct the military to be open to performance trade-offs for the sake of cost-cutting, promote competition among vendors and produce new innovative designs within five years, making use of standardized designs and commercially available technology.

In all, the amendment would mandate the kinds of steps the military has been starting to take anyway. The question is whether putting a law behind them can make them happen sooner, although whether it becomes law is up in the air.

Warner’s amendment is to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which is itself currently an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell amended CISA, which privacy advocates oppose because of its domestic surveillance aspects, to the NDAA to try and get it passed. But if the NDAA gets through Congress with CISA attached, the White House has promised a veto.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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