The new space race: Why the military wants to partner with the private sector janiecbros

A new Space Force initiative signals a bold step in public-private collaboration, writes Jeff Huggins, president of Cailabs US.

The Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve (CASR) has been described as ‘first-of-its-kind’. It’s an initiative, conceived by the Department of Defense, the aim of which is to leverage the equipment and expertise of the private sector – both in the United States and in allied countries – to maintain vital satellite capabilities.

Eligible companies will provide products or services identified by the U.S. military as essential for operations, and will need to prove they have the capacity to support the Department of Defense should a war break out.

That also entails a commitment to helping to defend America and its allies, said Col. Richard Kniseley, senior materiel leader of the Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office. And the CASR, on the whole, shows ‘just how serious we are about integrating commercial capabilities along with our military space capabilities’.

First of its kind

‘First-of-its-kind’ is right. Though the CASR was inspired by the Air Force Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, a post-war initiative involving the use of commercial airlines for transport during emergencies, it’s a truly new and progressive program.

There’s a world of difference between lending your planes to the government and actually integrating your equipment in essential military areas like communications, navigation, surveillance, and missile detection.

And that’s an illustration of something we’ve all noticed, which is that the world is becoming volatile, conflict is breaking out in keystone regions, and tensions are rising between the U.S. and China. Indeed, the Pentagon has flagged the growing threats posed by China, as well as Russia, to disrupt American satellites.

Those reaching for an analytical framework to understand the relationship between China and the U.S. often invoke the Cold War. So, too, has China itself.

The new space race heats up

I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about it. What we do know is that these two countries are competitors in a new space race.

China is launching remote-sensing satellites like they’re going out of fashion. It recently landed its Chang’e 6 unmanned craft on the far side of the moon. And with NASA set to retire the International Space Station in 2030, China’s Tiangong space station may be the only manned space station for a time.

Some of these strike observers as mainly symbolic. But in the fields of geopolitics and international affairs, symbols matter. And downstream from the headline-grabbers are real developments in space technology that will surely be used should military analysts be proved right in saying China will move into Taiwan in 2027.

Why satellites matter

Satellites are now absolutely essential for military infrastructure. It’s thanks to them that the U.S. military has access to precise navigation and secure communication.

But the military, for the most part, isn’t driving developments in these areas: private individuals, working for private companies, are. The pursuit of innovation has propelled entrepreneurs in the U.S. and other countries to innovate to solve problems, with healthy competition pushing them further, increasing differentiation, bringing down costs, and burning off inefficiencies.

Since the 1990s, the Department of Defense has often looked to the private sector for outstanding equipment and cutting-edge technology. The CASR reflects this long-standing attitude of trusting private companies, but takes the private-public relationship a step further for the sake of ensuring dominance in space tech specifically.

Efficiency and interoperability

An advantage of this approach is the DoD can focus on what matters most, and channel resources to that end. Rather than seek to develop masses of proprietary technology, it can work with private entities to get access to the best technology already available. In the U.S., in Europe and in other allied countries and regions, private companies have created products that the U.S. can buy off the shelf and use without delay.

This is about efficiency, on the one hand, and interoperability. Inspired by the successes of ‘network thinking’ in the private sector, the U.S. is developing creative ways to share and combine information and technology with private companies.

Trusted Collaboration

One of the difficulties for private companies is knowing what the DoD needs so they can accommodate the demand. This isn’t as simple as asking.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. is extremely careful about who it shares strategically important information with – more so, given the present concerns about Chinese spying in the West.

But for a public-private collaboration to work, the private sector needs a certain amount of knowledge and dialogue with the DoD.

The CASR may be helpful in building an improved rapport between industry and government. There are many Federal Acquisition Regulations to ensure the taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and efficiently, and to ensure a level competive playing field. However, too often, this sets a tone of “government vs. industry”, or “us against them” mentality from government that hinders the process.

Industry has lots of great people, many of whom are veterans, anxious to help and deliver the equipment and capabilities to DoD to ensure they are never in a fair fight and always have an advantage. Implementation of CASR is another positive step to help set the right tone of cooperation and collaboration.Something that may prove crucial as a changing geopolitical environment creates new military needs.

And that’s what we have to remember. The geopolitical environment is changing, and changing rapidly. In such circumstances, those who stand still will be left behind. The private sector is famously agile, responding rapidly to rising and falling wants and needs, and the space technology sector is no different.

By working together with private companies, the U.S. can ensure that it remains on the front edge of space tech, retains and lengthens its lead in the world space race, and has the military strength and depth to handle whatever the future holds.