By Nathan Worcester
Defense officials told senators what they think the United States must do to compete with China and other rivals in space.
Time, they agreed, is of the essence.
“The trick is to quit building big,” said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, in answer to a question from Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) during a May 2 hearing.
“I want to be the guy who watches it, has appropriate oversight, but doesn’t get in the way and become the ‘gotcha person,’” Cramer said.
“Big satellites take a long time to go build, and the fundamental model we need to drive to is to build much smaller satellite systems, to use existing technology, and do it in about three years,” Calvelli said.
“Not only will we gain speed, but we’ll do technology refresh dramatically faster because every three years we’re updating the technology, compared to today, where we might build a satellite over seven to nine years, and you’re not upgrading that technology until the next block, which is another seven to nine years, so you’re taking fifteen years to upgrade the technology. We can move faster, get more in orbit, and upgrade technology faster by building smaller,” he continued.
“Moving at speed is really important. I think it’s going to unlock things we haven’t even considered yet,” added John F. Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy.
He said more tolerance for failures would help ensure rapid development isn’t derailed.
“We cannot afford to have systems shut down because some small percentage of them failed, and I think that’s been the tendency for large, exquisite systems, which is added cost and time,” Plumb said.
Plumb and Calvelli testified on the need for speed during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
They were there to discuss President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget request for Department of Defense (DOD) space activities.
DOD wants $33.3 billion in space-related spending. The U.S. Space Force wants $30 billion, up $3.7 billion from its enacted budget for fiscal year 2023.
Created by former President Donald Trump, Space Force falls under the Department of the Air Force.
Big-ticket space items include a missile warning and missile tracking system comprising what the budget request describes as “a constellation of proliferated low-earth orbit and medium-earth orbit satellites.”
Gen. David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, explained that the move to proliferated satellites furthered a shift from an earlier paradigm, which relied on a smaller quantity of larger satellites.
He told the senators he felt more confident than in past years regarding the United States’ progress in space relative to China.
Lawmakers and officials also discussed overclassification, seen as another barrier to speedy innovation at the bleeding edge of space technology.
Plumb told Sen. Debra Fischer (R-Neb.) that he and his colleagues were collaborating with the intelligence community to eliminate “legacy systems” that hamper cooperation on space defense.
“We’ve got the right partners in the IC [intelligence community],” Plumb said.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Thompson if Washington was developing something akin to the “Five Eyes” intelligence linking the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom but for space defense.
“Secretary Plumb hosts a forum that we call the Combined Space Operations Initiative,” Thompson said.
“It includes not only the Five Eyes partners, but we’ve expanded to other like-minded allies—Germany and France and Japan and even folks like South Korea.”
He said spending constraints helped motivate that international coordination: “We can no longer afford to provide all of the capabilities ourselves.”