Space Force and COTS procurement
President Donald Trump recently called for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to create a new branch of the U.S. armed forces, a Space Force, to deal with threats outside our atmosphere. The move, like many Trump announcements, created immediate controversy, with some critics opining that it’s a waste of money and others saying that militarizing a peaceful environment is a stroke of genius or long overdue.
Put me in the “long overdue” camp. Within our industry, technology continues to be developed with cross-domain capability in mind. By domains I refer to air, land, sea, space, cyber, the electromagnetic spectrum, etc. While the electromagnetic spectrum and cyber are covered by the current branches of the DoD, space is mostly the territory of the Air Force Space command.
Aside from cyber, where is the U.S. most vulnerable? I say it’s in the space domain, as U.S. security and its citizens’ way of life is incredibly dependent on satellites – from mobile phone use, to business transactions, to GPS navigation. If you want to cripple the U.S. quickly, just knock out its satellites.
Not all the threats are nefarious in nature, either: There is a lot of space junk orbiting the Earth. For example, a tiny metal scrap from a blown-up satellite that hits a spacecraft at 30,000 mph could be as destructive as a bullet to a human at close range. That’s why the Space Fence radar is being funded.
More security is needed in space. Yes, the U.S. has been conducting military missions in space for decades. However, a Space Force creates an organization with the sole focus of maintaining the security of U.S. interests in space, with budgets, training, personnel, and missions aligned accordingly.
Regarding the Space Force critics, Doug Loverro, president of Loverro Consulting and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, wrote in a recent article on Space News that “Many of the president’s detractors pointed out, incorrectly, that the Outer Space Treaty reserves space for only peaceful purposes, but that’s just not true. It is true that the treaty specifically restricts the Moon or other celestial bodies for peaceful purposes, but it was intentionally silent with regards to outer space – simply because the two major signatories, the United States and the Soviet Union, were already using space for military applications and planned to continue to do so into the future.”
Loverro covers the broader need for a Space Force with an excellent historical perspective in the piece, titled “Why the United States needs a Space Force,” available here: https://spacenews.com/why-the-united-states-needs-a-space-force/.
The Space Force announcement also dovetails with what has been a paradigm shift in military procurement. For most of the last few years following the budget cuts and sequestration headaches, the U.S. government has moved away from funding tech development and started budgeting based on mission priorities. If those priorities call for more research and development and faster turnaround times for tech solutions, it will be reflected in the requirements.
That’s been the case for many terrestrial applications, from avionics to shipboard radar to electronic warfare (EW) solutions. These applications have the mission priority so they get the dollars, but suppliers of these are also required to add more capabilities and deliver them much quicker. The solutions area also features more COTS and is often based on open architectures.
The space arena has been slower to adapt this procurement process, but that is changing – and quickly – as end users want enhanced capability now and are leveraging open standards and commonality to make it happen. Suppliers that provide these solutions are only going to see more opportunities – in both manned and unmanned applications – as a Space Force is assembled.
In my mind, COTS is not an adjective used to describe quality, but rather is a procurement term. That is why COTS products sold and developed for space applications and sold to multiple programs are already flying in space.
These are off-the-shelf parts, already qualified for space, that meet the DoD price requirements that COTS suppliers have been developing for years.
This procurement change has been happening for years on the ground and today is affecting the military space market. DoD planners are now looking to see how they can drive costs down while maintaining quality in space platforms.
DoD-backed open standards such as SpaceVPX – also known as VITA 78 and VITA 78.1 – are being funded primarily by industry. That codevelopment enables reduced life cycle costs while meeting performance and reliability targets.
The U.S. Space Force – when it is fully stood up, organized, and deployed – will be leveraging solutions based on SpaceVPX and other standards such as CompactPCI Serial Space for missions similar to those conducted terrestrially, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); radar; EW; and the like.
Bet on it.