Industry Perspective: Public-Private Partnerships Critical to Protect Space

By Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch


We live in an era in which space is an increasingly challenged and even hostile environment. Today’s adversaries are able to jam satellites for reversible effects and even permanently damage space assets with kinetic attacks from ground-launched missiles, building urgency for optimal resilience in space.

In April during the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I joined Defense Department, intelligence community, State Department and Canadian Armed Forces leaders to examine the potential for adversaries to transform space into a battleground.

The panel discussion, titled “Warfare that Extends into Space: National Security, International, Civil and Commercial Partnerships,” focused more on tangible, achievable solutions rather than doomsday scenarios, with participants expanding upon the immediate need for partnerships that would coalesce the efforts of the U.S. government, its allies and commercial industry to foster a more protected space environment and encourage responsible behaviors in space.

The need for such resilience and strong partnerships is not new: In 2007, the world was shocked when China fired a ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile to destroy its own weather satellite, some 537 miles above the Earth. This satellite intercept test served as an awakening, opening our eyes to a new challenge of space as a contested and potential hostile domain — one that could possibly emerge as a dangerous environment.

Now just over 10 years later, there is an increased urgency to act as we are more dependent on space today for so many aspects of our modern lifestyle. We must be mindful that the increasing challenges in space represent ever-increasing potential dangers to all space assets, not just military space vehicles.

To respond with a new, multinational and industrial-based national security strategy centered around space, we have to “go fast and we have to innovate,” according to the panel’s moderator, Stephen Kitay, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “Partnerships are key to our strategy.”

What is clear is that the commercial satellite industry plays a primary, driving role in today’s national security strategy rather than a secondary or reactive one. Across all domains and capabilities — satellite communications for ground, maritime and airborne operations, space situational awareness, global navigation satellite systems, satellite launches and hosted payloads — the commercial industry continues to innovate and advance comparably and even beyond what governments can do. And satellite companies pursue these accomplishments not as competitors to agencies, but as collaborators for assured, protected access to space assets.

During the panel, I was encouraged to find that my co-participants agreed with this perspective.

“We need the aspirations provided by the commercial sector,” said Jonathan Margolis, acting deputy assistant secretary for science, space and health at the State Department’s bureau of oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. “We need the inspiration that the commercial sector has brought forward to inspire … what we can ultimately achieve in space. We need the efficiencies of the commercial sector.”

Brig. Gen. K.G. Whale, director general space, Canadian Armed Forces, described commercial advancements as a “forcing function” that greatly help satisfy strategic objectives: “New space innovation is clearly outpacing government culture, policy and procurement in orders of magnitude. … We should welcome that forcing function. We need to find ways [to harness] the benefits of this commercial innovation.”

My fellow panelists and I also took the opportunity to elaborate upon critical components of the partnerships — and how they can combine to form a formidable, defensive posture to discourage hostile actions on the part of our adversaries.

We must take an enterprise approach to partnerships, one that incorporates mutual trust, upfront planning and reciprocity. The formal establishment of a commercial presence within the Joint Space

Operations Center serves as a good example of this. It follows the creation of the commercial integration cell pilot program within the center in June 2015, in which Inmarsat and six other satellite companies were selected to collaborate with the U.S. government via cooperative research and development agreements. Literally working on the center floor every day, the partnership enables industry and the government to share technology and information on a collaborative basis, expanding integration and space situational awareness while increasing the command-and-control capacity of the joint force space component commander under Strategic Command. It has focused on the improvement of processes and commercial/government integration in conducting conjunction assessments and addressing electromagnetic interference and resolution.

Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command and the joint force space component commander, has described the commercial integration cell as “the next step in our ongoing efforts to partner with like-minded spacefaring entities to promote the peaceful and responsible use of space” through the enhanced integration of industry capabilities into day-to-day space operations.

In these and likeminded efforts both nationally and on a global scale, we acknowledge that there are cultural differences between commercial providers and U.S. federal agencies, as well as their international counterparts. And yet we establish transparency to rise above these differences, always with an eye toward common goals and mutually desired effects. We need to understand shared risks and perceived advantages to make beneficial, informed decisions.

Without transparency, we will encounter misunderstandings that will result in delivery gaps that could ultimately prove destructive to partnerships, only enabling or even perhaps encouraging adversarial activity. With transparency, we holistically blend cultural backgrounds, technical know-how and performance strengths, to create a unified state of enhanced resiliency. Together, we identify the threats and, together, we assemble an integrated response.

In the satellite community, we often grow so enamored with the satellite itself and lose sight of the rest of the end-to-end system required for capability delivery. A truly cohesive space architecture relies upon so much more. A complete architecture encompasses the requisite ground infrastructure supported by the robust connectivity of fiber networks, and of course the user terminals necessary to consume the service. Without this fully end-to-end system of systems, a satellite in orbit amounts to merely “space junk.”

Indeed, when we think about an architecture, the aforementioned enterprise concept should come into play. In addition to the satellites and the ground infrastructure, the architecture is about the users consuming it and the people who make that happen — the solution providers and government leaders who seek multiple means of function via diverse sources. Yet, this is not diversity for diversity’s sake. Our response demands more than just “one flag.” We are an international team, bringing the best of what many nations and companies can offer. We are in the game of space together. Sharing resources as one enterprise makes the architecture viable.

Security and interoperability remain crucial. Without them, the partnerships will not realize their potential.

Within certain agency circles, however, there are misconceptions that a strong commercial presence will invite compromises in the form of reduced security and interoperability. As to the latter, industry is constantly engineering solutions and services so that they are interconnected to Defense Department and other required information networks. Instead of interoperability obstacles, agency partners take advantage of a plethora of capabilities that complement and strengthen government performance.

In addressing security, satellite companies invest so that systems are not only competitively defended but superior in this regard. In addition to the government, strong commercial companies support a wide range of sectors and each brings unique security demands and requirements to satisfy. As a trusted operator, the protection of internal and customer data is essential. Frankly, this is done for their own economic viability. If their satellites and networks are vulnerable, they are out of business.

With space emerging as the next potential focus area, the time is right for partnerships, and the time is now. The U.S. government, its allies and the trusted commercial satellite industry are highly invested in the freedom of action in orbit because the mission of our servicemen and women depends upon it.

Therefore, we will commit to do whatever it takes to deter adversarial activity that threatens our ability to operate. If the partnerships effectively combine our knowledge and resources to build an entirely capable, interoperable and secure enterprise space architecture, the effort will be well worth it.

Rebecca M. Cowen-Hirsch is senior vice president for government strategy and policy at Inmarsat Government, based in Reston, Virginia.

Topics: Space Policy and Strategy, Space, Industrial Security

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