SPACECOM Nominee Wants More Commercial Tech

U.S. Space Command should work with and buy from commercial industry as much as possible, said Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting during a July 26 hearing on his nomination to become SPACECOM’s commander

“Partnering with commercial entities enables [SPACECOM] to adapt faster, innovate more reliably, integrate cutting-edge technology on an accelerated timeline, bolster space architecture resilience, develop a better understanding of the space domain, expedite decision making, and devise economical solutions to strategic problems,” Whiting wrote in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

During the hearing, Whiting highlighted in particular his experience at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., working with the Commercial Integration Cell that is underneath SPACECOM. 

“We brought in the 10 companies that we contract with the most for capability through the Department of Defense,” Whiting said. “And in that cell, we share intelligence at the highest level, we get insights into what’s happening in their constellations. Because we believe if we all have that insight, we operate better together. So that’s just one example of the ways that if confirmed, I would want to continue to drive our ability to leverage American industry because of the advantages it brings forth.” 

SPACECOM has already announced plans to expand the cell to include more contractors, highlighting the explosive growth of the modern space industry.Whiting said he wants to encourage growth through a “buy first” mindset in which the Pentagon seeks leverage commercial technology before considering developing capabilities from scratch. 

“At all times, we will encourage the Services and other acquisition organizations to first look to buy existing commercial capabilities when it can meet our requirements, then look to exploit available commercial technologies for military purposes, and finally, to build military-unique systems only when required,” Whiting wrote in his testimony. 

Whiting’s comments align with what Space Systems Command and the Space Development Agency leaders have pushed for, and Whiting endorsed SDA’s approach in response to written questions about whether the agency should continue to acquire and rapidly field satellites. 

In addition to buying commercial technology, Whiting also said he wants to work with industry to take advantage of existing space capabilities already have in orbit, such as sensors and communications capacity.

Separately, Space Systems Command released a draft framework on July 25 to formalize how commercial space capabilities might be leveraged in a Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve. Similar to the Air Force’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet, this industrial capability would supplement military capabilities in time of war. The document details different levels of conflict and how the U.S. government might be able to utilize commercial satellite constellations in a crisis, even to the point of taking over exclusive access to those satellites. Commercial partners would also provide some level of capability in peacetime and benefit from “improved info and threat-sharing.” 

The blurring of distinction between military and civilian uses could have long-term implications in terms of what constitutes civilian vs. military targets. The framework notes the potential for government-backed “war risk insurance” for companies whose satellites are used in conflicts—highlighting the risk that adversaries could harm those satellites with counterspace weapons. 

Whiting demurred when pressed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on whether an attack on U.S. commercial satellites constitutes an act of war. That’s a policy question, he said, but he added that SPACECOM is required to have options at hand to defend commercial space capabilities. It’s important for government and private industry to work together to minimize risk, he said. 

“We must continue to partner with those companies, so that they look to build resilience into their systems,” Whiting continued. “and then partner with them, that if we do need to actively defend them, we have the communication avenues open to be able to do so.”