The commercial sector continues to grow its presence in space, and defense organizations are taking a hard look at how to take advantage of private sector capabilities and where they can cede ground to contractors.

That was a topic of discussion at the 18th annual C4ISRNET Conference in Arlington, Virginia, where a June 6 panel of experts shared their thoughts on how the government and the commercial sector could work together in space.

Putting things in a historical context, President and CEO of SES Government Solutions Pete Hoene argued that the commercial sector had essentially taken over the space race.

“Overall, the last 10 years, what I would argue is commercial has taken over in terms of investment, in terms of innovation,” said Hoene.

“Space started out as a domain for nation-states, and for security considerations we look at it from a nation-state perspective," said Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation. “But who is launching all these new constellations and satellites? It’s not governments; it’s the commercial sector. Space is becoming and will become a commercial domain almost entirely, and national security will be a very small part of that in terms of the number of satellites.”

Faced with the inevitability of space as a primarily commercial domain, the onus is on the government to discover where for-profit enterprises can compliment government missions and where government should contract with industry to provide capacity.

The National Reconnaissance Office took a stab at this question earlier this week when it announced that it was taking steps toward purchasing more commercial imagery through three study contracts with commercial companies.

“The demand signal is growing. That’s one of the reasons why we’re going to be stepping up our procurement of commercial imagery,” said Troy Meink, director of the NRO’s Geospatial Intelligence Directorate at the GEOINT 2019 conference in San Antonio June 3. “We really needed to look at increasing the number of vendors and getting access to more vendors to meet those capabilities.”

The government can also lean on the commercial sector to enhance its own assets in space.

“We can actually use our relationships with the commercial technologies to help inform our requirements that go into systems that we may uniquely require on the defense or the intelligence side,” explained Col. Steve Butow, the Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio director.

Comfort added that at the piece part level of the supply chain, the commercial sector had developed supplies that are more resilient and advanced, which the government can then use in its own assets. That robustness has not yet extended into all aspects of the supply chain, he noted. A lack of U.S. manufacturers for many technologies is also a concern, added Butow.

While the commercial takeover of space may present plenty of opportunities for the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community in terms of increasing its capacity and capabilities in space, it will be a challenge to find the right mix of engagement between government and private industry.

“It’s a time of change and our institutional processes are scrambling to keep up with this change,” said Samson. “It’s probably going to get uglier before it gets better.”

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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