How the Space Force plans to surge a commercial fleet during wartime

How the Space Force plans to surge a commercial fleet during wartime

In late 2022, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hamstrung a planned Ukrainian strike on Russian forces when he suddenly decided he didn’t want his Starlink satellites involved. Now the Pentagon is trying to ensure that never happens again.

A new program called the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, or CASR, will ensure the Space Force can rely on commercial vendors’ space systems throughout a “spectrum of conflict,” said Col. Richard Kniseley, director of the Space Force’s year-old Commercial Space Office. 

What happened in Ukraine is “exactly why we need to go after CASR. We were not on contract with SpaceX Starlink at that moment, so that was a donated service that more or less got interrupted,” Kniseley told Defense One

Under this construct, which lawmakers just greenlit in the House Armed Service Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill, companies would voluntarily join the space reserve and be on contract to allow the U.S. military to use their systems in times of crisis, with clear clauses about what is expected of the company and how much they would be paid. 

“The goal of CASR is to have a contractual framework that provides a level amount of peacetime capabilities in order for us to integrate, operate, and utilize these commercial capabilities and get our operators comfortable with them, but through the contract, we will have surge and scale of those capabilities, pre-priced across the spectrum of conflict,” Kniseley said.

That means companies in the reserve are signing up to prioritize their satellites for the Pentagon. At any point, the Pentagon could tell the companies to stop giving their service to other customers, he said, because some of the companies sell their services overseas, potentially to an adversary.

Kniseley said he hopes to see the first of these contracts awarded by the end of the year. The first two mission areas the program will focus on are space domain awareness and satellite communications. 

CASR  won’t be focused on acquiring commercial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at first, Kniseley said, but will work with the intelligence community—the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—as the Space Force figures out its role in acquiring “tactical” ISR, a new(ish) mission for the service. The defense and intelligence communities have been in an ongoing tug-of-war over which community should be in charge of purchasing ISR imagery from commercial companies. 

When it comes to ISR, the program is more interested in buying the “analytics,” not the imagery, and will pursue existing capability rather than buying more, he said.  

“I don’t know if I would say traditional ISR will be an initial focus for CASR. We’re definitely working with the NRO and NGA passing along our status as well as any ideas for those contract clauses. We do see a need to definitely have CASR capabilities or contracts, especially with those analytic providers,” Kniseley said. 

The concept is based on the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, where airlines voluntarily give the Pentagon their airlift resources under certain circumstances. But the key difference between CASR and CRAF is that CRAF only uses commercial capabilities for peacetime operations, Kniseley said, which is not how they’ll use the space reserve.

“Space capabilities are over the [area of responsibility] all the time. They are over China or Russia, based on orbits or just how the Earth is rotating, so, there’s really no way to say, ‘No, I’m only going to utilize the commercial capability over a peacetime area.’ It doesn’t work that way. That capability is on at any given point,” Kniseley said. 

But using commercial systems during wartime comes with a host of new considerations for the Pentagon. It remains to be seen how the Pentagon will provide financial compensation if a vendor’s system is damaged or destroyed while being used during conflict. 

Companies probably won’t be indemnified in the legal definition of the word, Kniseley said, because a company is only indemnified for “unusually hazardous acts,” and providing a peacetime level of capability for the government isn’t unusually hazardous.   

“I don’t know if I would agree that indemnification is the right term, but the DOD is actively looking at what is that model for financial protection and how are we going to get after that,” Kniseley said. 

The program will work with Congress and the Defense Department’s space policy office to flesh out the necessary policies for wartime insurance, he said. 

The Space Force is also figuring out how to incentivize joining the space reserve. In the CRAF model, the pecking order in which contracts are awarded is determined by how many aircraft a company has enrolled in the CRAF program. Kniseley didn’t say if CASR will have those same types of incentives, but that they will unveil an incentive plan to industry at the end of August. 

The program needs to finish analysis to see exactly how much commercial capability they will need for each mission area, Kniseley said.

“Our first one is a mission area analysis for commercial SATCOM for the Indo-Pacific region, and that is ongoing right now, but that’s going to help us really form the basis of the amount that we will put on contract so that we are not buying commercial for commercial sake and we’re giving the warfighter exactly what they need to do their business, but also through these contracts will have the ability to onboard innovation, so we’re not planning on long-term contracts,” he said.

In addition to an incentive plan, the program will roll out a “surveillance plan” to make sure the companies are adhering to their contracts and cybersecurity requirements, he said. 

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