For years, the Pentagon has been required to have two military space launch providers available at all times. But that system means a slow process, with long-scheduled launch plans. Now, with the rise of alternative launch providers around the globe and the reliance on smaller systems, Joshua C. Huminski of the Center of the Presidency & Congress argues that it’s time for the US to change how it handles getting military’s assets into orbit.
More than any other country, the United States relies on space for its national and economic security. Space assets underpin every aspect of daily life, from that ubiquitous blue dot on your iPhone to the weather forecast for next week, but also ensures that our servicemembers retain, in Gen. Jay Raymond’s words, the “ultimate high ground” as they work to deter America’s strategic adversaries like Russia and China.
Maintaining that stability requires regular access to orbit—so much so it is enshrined in law as “Assured Access” to space. Under that law, the United States must have at least “two space launch vehicles (or families of space launch vehicles)” capable of delivering each national security payload to orbit. The idea is that even if one system is grounded, there is always a second option for reaching orbit at hand for critical national security launches.
That’s a setup that has worked for years. But as the Space Force celebrates its second anniversary, the time is right to reconsider the launch enterprise as a whole and look to not merely “Assured Access” but something more. Instead, let’s have more of a spectrum for launch, sliding from the small to the exquisite, and both budget and contract it accordingly.
It’s time for “Assured Access” to morph into something new: a program of diversified, disaggregated, and responsive access to orbit.
This “Assured Access” requirement, through various twists and turns, led to first the creation of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program and, its successor, the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Program, presently executed by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. This program requires high degrees of mission assurance (befitting exquisite and unique national security payloads), mandates mission-specific and launch-site specific requirements such as vertical integration at launch sites in California and Florida, and is currently meeting the government’s needs for the handful of launches obligated under the contract.
The challenge is that, while effective, the NSSL Program represents only one part of a broader eco-system of launch. There will, of course, be a need for bespoke, exquisite payloads for the foreseeable future. These are payloads for which there is no commercial basis, defined as “National Technical Means”— highly sensitive and capable intelligence collection platforms —which are carried aloft by ULA’s and SpaceX’s highly capable rockets under the NSSL program.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Orbital Services Program (OSP-4) which “allows for the rapid acquisition of launch services to meet mission requirements for payloads greater than 400 pounds.” This is a novel program that is delivering services to the US Space Force from new and emerging launch providers, and could provide a model for moving forward.
Right now, programmatically, budget-wise, and contract-wise, the launch enterprise approaches putting payloads into orbit in terms of preset missions. This needs to change and become more about capabilities across the launch spectrum. By diversifying our approach to launch, we will achieve an increase in launch and payload options. Moving away from two launch sites and towards options in Texas, Alaska, and the Pacific Ocean would create a diversified launch program that changes the targeting equation for America’s adversaries while also introducing uncertainty into their approach.
No longer will launch be on a schedule, but on demand and as needed. Should a crisis erupt in the South China Sea, a payload could be launched on a Rocket Lab Electron from New Zealand on short notice. Should additional coverage over the Middle East be necessary, a payload could be added to a Falcon 9 stack and launched out of California. Experimental satellites could easily join a Blue Origin New Glenn manifest and fly from Cape Canaveral. The options are limited only by the program, the budget, the contract, and the creativity of the Space Force.
That this is even an option is due to the maturation and growth of the commercial space launch industry. With new entrants arriving nearly daily (or so it seems), commercial launch is offering new and novel capabilities that the Space Force should seize upon, while ensuring that that core base of capabilities is maintained. (In committing to a more responsive or diversified approach, the Space Force will also help stimulate both the commercial launch enterprise and the satellite industry to think about developing outside-the-box capabilities beyond those which already exist.)
Today, if you want to fly, you go to an airline’s website, pick your destination, and go. You don’t need to start with a blank page and build the airline from scratch, nor are you limited to only one type of aircraft. Same with shipping a package — you don’t need to invent FedEx or UPS in order to make sure it gets to its destination.
We need to start thinking about launch the same way, and the time is ripe to do so. In so doing, America will find itself in a stronger strategic position, capable of doing more in and from orbit, and challenge our strategic adversaries in novel ways.
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
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Moving Beyond Assured Access to Space – Breaking Defense