Building the Space Force on a Sandy Foundation

Thinking about the paper more, and I now wonder if its content is actually emblematic of the confusion the U.S. Air Force had in figuring out what to do with space operations (aside from throwing it in with “the cyber” and making it a support service). I wonder that, because the report is confusing in general, making one statement, then somehow using historical examples that don’t support it. When looked at through that USAF lens, the report’s confusion about space operations seems in-line with the service’s. The confusion doesn’t excuse the interpretations and inaccurate data use.

Also, an unrelated update: SpaceX successfully launched and landed a Starship yesterday afternoon—and it didn’t blow up, afterward. See that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9eoubnO-pE.

It’s distressing to read papers with inaccuracies in them that people in authority may be relying on. And to note that the inaccuracies don’t appear in one area of analysis but seem to indicate a systemic problem, one that insinuates itself into nearly every paragraph. The problem compounds through combinations of assumptions, ignorance, or questionable interpretations of history and current data. 

As an example, the statement below caused me to re-read it a few times:

Deregulation during the Trump Administration fostered more competition, and today, six private corporations are actively engaged in placing satellites into orbit—twice the number that had launched systems into orbit in 2019.

Unfortunately, that statement is one of many in “Rebuilding America’s Military: The United States Space Force” that displays inaccuracies and questionable interpretations. It’s terribly long as well (and I say this as a long-winded analyst). Are there no fact-checkers, no researchers, at The Heritage Foundation?

To be clear, this is not a grudge piece against the author nor the Heritage Foundation. But when things are written with a certain slant, using incorrect data, etc., I do feel a need to push back, especially as a former USAF space operator.

That’s what this is.

Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades?

The elephant in the room is that the above statement is unnecessarily political because it states that more competition resulted from the previous administration’s policies. That idea and the rest of the statement are inaccurate on many levels. 

The fact that the numbers of corporations referred to in the paper as U.S. competitors today were already, um, competing before the referenced administration seems irrelevant to the narrative the author is attempting to weave. The data the author may be using for his counts could come from many different sources. 

Finding the data that would have made the author’s argument accurate (and what I will use for the paragraph below) is trivial. Most search engines will bring up Zarya.info, Gunter’s Space Page, Jonathan’s Space Report, and more. For a report, though, I’d recommend “The Space Report Online” or the Institute for Defense Analysis. Or even download data from Space-Track.org (the author mentions it!!), free and authoritative. 

In 2016, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, and ULA were the U.S. companies conducting launches. By 2019, a name swap (Orbital to Northrop Grumman) and a smallsat launch provider added–Rocket Lab. All four conducted successful orbital launches in 2019. This year, we can add Virgin Orbit because it finally successfully launched satellites to orbit using its LauncherOne rocket. All in all, five U.S. companies actively launched satellites in 2021 so far. And while I admit I’m not a math guy, I believe adding one to four does not double the four.

Another inaccuracy surrounds the author’s writing as if the DoD operates SpaceX’s Starlink low Earth orbit broadband constellation. The boldface is mine, but the author repeats this sentiment a few times in the paper:

The Air Force began to test SpaceX compatibility and communications linkages with airborne service aircraft and other spaceborne systems in its Global Lightning program in 2019, and the Army tapped into a constellation of 600 satellites in LEO during an exercise known as Project Convergence in the summer of 2020. Participants expressed the expectation that the constellation would grow to some 4,500 satellites—numbers that mirror the current and projected state of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation—by the end of 2023.

The exact number and composition of DOD’s growing LEO-based network of satellites is unknown, but it appears to be in place and growing at a rate of as many as 60 satellites a month. Assuming that it continues, this relationship will bode well for the resilience and survivability of the network of satellites available to DOD.

Those statements may come as a surprise to SpaceX, who owns and operates Starlink. It might surprise and concern SpaceX’s Starlink subscribers. All the satellite numbers the author references are very much the numbers surrounding Starlink, which is very obviously a commercially-run company. The disconnect is surprising because the author also talks about the services signing contracts with SpaceX for Starlink.

It’s unclear why the writing indicates DoD ownership of Starlink. I understand why Starlink is attractive to the DoD (broadband, LEO, optical links, lots of satellites=hard to take down, challenging to jam). It would be advantageous, even if the DoD doesn’t operate the constellation.

Commercial Growth and Competition’s Costs

Focusing on the “commercial” part of the paper requires a little digging to make sense of the data the author is bringing forward. The paper refers to commercial space industry growth (I am assuming he’s focusing on the U.S. for the entire paper) and brings up these facts: 

Commercial growth in the space industry has skyrocketed over the past decade. In 2010, just three U.S. commercial space organizations were involved, and collectively, they launched 14 missions into space.

Using my same sources, it’s easy to see which U.S. companies launched 12 times during 2010: Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, and ULA. SpaceX’s launches were NASA-focused that year, attempting to meet certain milestones. Orbital Sciences and ULA launched government and military payloads on the remaining ten launches (the government-operated space shuttle launched three times). All in all, three U.S. commercial companies launched government and military payloads in 2010…as they did in 2016. Three of the five companies that launched during 2021 so far are launching the same type of rockets today that launched 11 years ago.

Does adding two more companies (one which has successfully launched just one rocket) add meaningful skyrocketing in U.S. commercial growth? Especially if that growth is due to one company’s activities? Did the 14 Starlink launches of SpaceX’s total of 25 contribute to the space market in 2020? To be clear, there is growth, but not in the sectors the author is exploring.

The paper also describes how commercial competition has been good for the DoD. 

The inherent competition has driven down the cost per launch, giving DOD greater and more cost-effective access to this domain. America has turned the corner on this vital capability, and the access that commercial space organizations give the U.S. will be critical to dominating great-power competition in the coming years.

For the longest time, the DoD paid just one commercial company, ULA, billions to launch under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. That situation means that any competition would likely have resulted in lower prices. But competition was non-existent, and ULA continued increasing launch prices, even after SpaceX started successfully launching rockets.

The DoD has tried hard to negate, and then slow, savings from the competition (a reason why SpaceX had to sue to be able to compete for EELV). The DoD has currently downselected the competition to two launch providers: SpaceX and ULA. It has doled out contracts that consistently pay more to ULA (in one instance, for two non-operational rockets) than SpaceX through its National Security Space Launch program. 

The DoD does this type of awarding so consistently that ULA continues focusing on government/military contracts instead of competing for commercial launches. That’s not competition, and DoD contracts do not create the U.S. launch market. It also is not an indicator that the U.S. has “turned the corner” for launch. The U.S. appears to be developing dependence on SpaceX to drive down costs, which is great for customers but is not a healthy market condition.

I could go on because, as noted earlier, there are issues throughout the report. The section regarding the National Reconnaissance Office would result in another 600 words, at least for why his assumptions are ill-founded, but I can’t do that. Instead, I will bring up one more quote because it is what got me looking more closely at the rest of the paper:

After more than five decades of one Administration after another carrying forward President Eisenhower’s policy of “peaceful uses of outer space,” that mindset is especially hard to shake.

I have three letters as a response to that narrative: SDI. If you don’t know about “Brilliant Pebbles,” you should read up on it. Its description doesn’t appear “peaceful.”

Ultimately, it’s too bad the data and analysis in the paper wind up becoming so questionable (with some political simpering thrown in) that it requires more time than I have to figure out what’s true. For anyone who feels like reading it, there appear to be some practical ideas for the Space Force, but those are lost among the other bits. I had to walk away from the desk a few times to keep confusion at bay. There was an opportunity to do more with this report. It could have informed instead of using reinforced tropes while obfuscating with dirty data. 

What makes it worse is that readers of the analysis may wind up depending on the report to inform their decisions. After all, it’s on The Heritage Foundation’s website. While this sort of misinformation happens all the time with companies and investors in the space industry, all they lose is money and prestige. When it comes to the Space Force and the DoD, misinformation can lead to loss of life and liberty.

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