Commercial space capabilities are playing a crucial role in providing Ukraine an advantage in its fight against Russian aggression. Commercial systems are proving resilience and complicating Russia’s moves. The demonstrated advantages of commercial space call for accelerated integration of these capabilities into the U.S. Department of Defense.
Data from commercial systems is easy to share because it is unclassified. In Ukraine, this shareable, actionable data is one of the commercial defense sector’s most significant contributions.
In the buildup to the conflict, commercial remote sensing data highlighted Russia's military advances, dispelled Russian disinformation operations, and provided a fact base to unify NATO, other European allies, and global allies.
As the war began, commercial space capabilities became instrumental. Earth observation and imagery, radio frequency intelligence, and broadband networks enabled critical data to be shared in tactically relevant timelines, saving Ukrainian military and civilian lives and altering the course of the war.
The U.S. should capitalize on the undeniable advantages of commercial space by accelerating the incorporation of these capabilities into U.S. defense plans and operations.
After Russia disrupted Ukraine’s primary satellite communication systems, commercial low-Earth orbit satellite constellations powered broadband services so the Ukrainian military could continue critical communications, command, and control. High-resolution Earth observation satellite imagery revealed the movement of Russian troops, equipment, and other critical elements.
Space-based radio frequency sensors detected Russian interference with global positioning satellite activities, enabling appropriate counter-responses. Radio-frequency intelligence provides a key indicator of Russian troop movements throughout the battle space, highlighting the patterns of war and changes in key military activities.
With unclassified remote sensing data from commercial systems, Ukraine and allied nations have been able to collect, vet, and share crucial information in ways that were simply not achievable before.
These successes highlight the need for accelerated integration of commercial space capabilities into U.S. diplomatic, strategic, and security architectures. While the government has gradually integrated communications satellites and network services over the last few decades, it has yet to leverage the intelligence capabilities that commercial space offers.
Instead, they are still treated as a separate entity from military forces. The U.S. should capitalize on the undeniable advantages of commercial space by accelerating the incorporation of these capabilities into U.S. defense plans and operations. Waiting to integrate commercial systems until after a conflict starts will be too late.
National security leaders need to begin including commercial systems in relevant mission area architectures and define where and how these capabilities will be used. Failing to do so will weaken our ability to "Deter and Defend" against adversaries and will limit us to being reactive in a future conflict where every second will matter.
Accelerated integration of commercial space capabilities today will allow military operators to refine appropriate tactics, techniques, and procedures before the next conflict begins. Commercial companies bring additive resources to what taxpayers provide.
Commercial companies leverage private capital and bring rapid innovation to field disruptive capabilities in advance of formal U.S. government contracts. In parallel, the government must begin budgeting now to procure these capabilities given the ponderous Department of Defense procurement processes.
Actions to increase investment in commercial defense technologies could dramatically enhance U.S. defense in an era of constrained government defense spending. Using commercial capabilities also strengthens the web of friendly regional alliances by leveraging the global and interoperable nature of the commercial space ecosystem. These alliances are foundational in deterring belligerent nations from aggression and increase the likelihood of winning if a conflict occurs.
A dynamic, innovative private sector is one of the advantages the U.S. and its allies possess to compete with China. However, some commercial companies will turn away from defense if it is too difficult to do business with the government.
Together, national security leaders from allied nations worldwide need to accelerate the changes necessary to integrate the commercial space sector as a key component of their future defense strategies. Leaders have seen these capabilities in action in Ukraine and must better integrate commercial space into their defense architectures now to better deter conflict and if necessary, effectively fight and win in the conflicts ahead.