The Pentagon Is Increasingly Relying on Billionaires’ Rockets. And It’s OK with That.
Space Force leaders say carefully written contracts can prevent things like SpaceX’s about-face on Ukrainian satcomms.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—The U.S. Space Force is not concerned about relying on mercurial billionaires to provide space capabilities, according to top service leaders.
The service’s ability to put large satellites in space rests primarily on the shoulders of Elon Musk, whose SpaceX test-flew a new heavy-lift rocket for the first time on Thursday, and Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin is slated to deliver engines to United Launch Alliance.
A potential problem is illustrated by Musk’s behavior toward Ukraine. In the months that followed Russia’s invasion, SpaceX donated some 20,000 of its satellite internet terminals and millions of dollars’ worth of service to the Ukrainian military. But in October, SpaceX wrote the Pentagon that it would cease its subsidy. Three months after that, Starlink officials said they had taken steps to hinder Ukraine’s use of the terminals on the battlefield; Musk declared, in apparent contradiction of Starlink’s work for the Pentagon, that the service was “never intended to be weaponized.” Ukrainian and Pentagon officials have said they would seek alternatives to Starlink.
But despite Musk’s hot-and-cold attitude, the U.S. Space Force is not concerned about heavily relying on these companies, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said Wednesday at the Space Symposium.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall echoed Saltzman’s comments, saying, “The Pentagon relies on executable and enforceable contracts with industry.”
“I think that history will show that commercial capabilities have been used in all domains, in all aspects of conflict across full spectrum operations and quite frankly, that is because we can't afford to keep all of the capabilities inside the military—the bill’s too much,” Saltzman told Defense One.
However, Saltzman said that the Space Force has not yet had a chance to talk through specific policies with industry to decide how it will use commercial satellites during conflict.
But if the Pentagon sets parameters with industry and writes contracts around those discussions, Saltzman said “expectations will be known and we can have contingency plans that account for it.”
“I think with expectations clearly identified with planning, bringing commercial partners into our exercises, to our wargames, so they understand what we're trying to do,” he said.
The general also mentioned his service’s recent Schriever wargame, which included representatives of 14 companies to help explore what space operations could look like.
“It's the unknown, it’s the things you do on the fly as you're going—that's where you have concern. As long as we're planning ahead of time, we're not going to have a problem,” Saltzman said.
The influence of billionaires has helped advance the space-launch industry, said Randy Kendall, vice president of launch and architecture operations at Aerospace Corporation.
Their ability to pump money into R&D efforts without justifying the risk to a board of directors can make it easier to make technological leaps, Kendall told Defense One.
Billionaires “can push across that valley of death and now he's bringing the rest of the industry with us, so I actually credit Elon [Musk] and Jeff Bezos with actually a lot of this renaissance in this market,” he said.