A Falcon-9 rocket carrying SpaceX's Starlink L-23 payload launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, April 7, 2021.

A Falcon-9 rocket carrying SpaceX's Starlink L-23 payload launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, April 7, 2021. U.S. Space Force / Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman

What role should industry play in military space operations? The Space Force is working on a strategy for that.

The service will release a plan for how to integrate commercial satellite services by the end of the year.

The U.S. Space Force is working on clearer guidelines for how it works with commercial companies—including during a potential conflict in space—and plans to have a new strategy by the end of the year. 

The service had to revise its original “commercial space strategy” because the draft didn’t provide enough specifics to industry, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said Wednesday at the Center for a New American Security. 

“Are we looking for commercial services or are we looking for commercial assets to be given to the government? And then you say, well, how do I decide? What are the inherently governmental functions that have to be performed by either the military or Space Force, versus what services could I outsource and let industry do for us and I just pay as I go? We didn't have really good solid answers for that,” Saltzman said. 

Industry needs more guidance on their role in space domain awareness, Saltzman said. Companies can provide warnings before collisions happen, but determining that those collisions could occur might be an “inherently governmental function,” he said, since some may be hostile.

“We want imagery and we want SATCOM—[but] do you want to lease bandwidth or do you want to buy a satellite? And so it was just about getting the next level of specificity,” Saltzman said. 

Defining industry’s role in military space operations is crucial as companies’ interests don’t necessarily align with the Pentagon’s. For example, SpaceX has played a key role in Ukraine, but some Pentagon officials have been concerned by CEO Elon Musk’s erratic behavior.

Still, Saltzman said he is not worried about working with the company, “because we write contracts with SpaceX, not Elon Musk.”

“We have several contracts in place with SpaceX. It clarifies all of our intentions in the full spectrum of operations. I have no reason to believe that the contracts wouldn't be fulfilled completely,” Saltzman said. 

Though the official strategy is still being hammered out, the Space Force has had “plenty of discussions” with companies about expectation management if operations go from competition to crisis to conflict, the general said. 

Determining the role industry should play in military space operations is increasingly important as China rapidly deploys new space capabilities, according to Pentagon officials. 

“We have to take our cues knowing that we will have to respond to them in space, both protecting our assets and then denying this very exquisite kill web that is space enabled, that the [People’s Republic of China] has put on orbit,” Saltzman said. 

China is exploring directed energy weapons and has “mastered” missile technology to shoot down satellites, Saltzman said, citing a test in 2007 in which China destroyed one of its own satellites. 

That test “created problems and still is creating problems,” Saltzman said. When the general visited the 19th Space Defense Squadron in Norfolk, Virginia, which predicts the likelihood of on-orbit collisions, he said the “top collision avoidance maneuver that they were proposing was because of a piece of debris from the Feng Yun satellite that was shut down 2007, so that's 16 years ago and we are still deconflicting debris from that event.” 

China has also demonstrated in-orbit capabilities, and can grab spacecraft with its S-J 21 satellite, which previously took a defunct Chinese satellite and dropped it off past the GEO orbit, he said. 

“If you can do the one satellite, you can do with another. And so those are the kinds of threats that we're trying to counter, mitigate, and create resiliency against, and it's a daunting proposition,” he said. 

The Space Force hopes it can curb irresponsible behavior from China and Russia now that multiple countries have signed on to the Pentagon's tenants of responsible space behaviors, Saltzman said. Having a unified, international reaction after an adversary acts dangerously in space can also help discourage that behavior, he said. 

“I think with what we saw with the Chinese in 2007, I think they think differently about it now. It's been a while since they've thought about doing anything like that….I think internally they even had some dynamics where they [were] like, why did we do that? Do we need to do that? It caused so much issue,” Saltzman said. 

International peer pressure works on Russia too, the general said. 

“I don't know if it'll stop behavior, but I think it constrains their thinking, and it gives them pause as to how they should conduct those operations in the future,” he said.