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U.S. military’s appetite for information fueling demand for space technology

Thompson: The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all want “the ability to get information from space.”

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army last week announced plans to explore new uses of satellites and other space technology in support of soldiers on the ground.

This is a clear sign that the demand for space-based capabilities is growing across the U.S. military, said Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force.

All the military services are looking at ways to use space to their advantage, Thompson said in an interview with SpaceNews.

“Part of this is a recognition of how critical space capabilities and information from space is going to be to the fight,” he said of the Army’s announcement that it plans to invest in space systems.

The Space Force was spun out the Air Force in 2019 to give the military a dedicated branch focused on space. It is responsible for defending U.S. satellites that foreign adversaries could target in a future conflict, and the Space Force supports the U.S. military at large with technologies like GPS navigation, satellite-based communications, surveillance and early warning.

Thompson said Space Force and Army leaders are discussing options for how new capabilities could be funded and brought to fruition. “There’s a whole host of ways that they can obtain the data they need from space to enable their tactical operations,” said Thompson.

“Some people are jumping to the conclusion that they [the Army] will build and fly their own satellites,” he said. But other possibilities are being considered as well.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all want “the ability to get information from space” regardless of how it’s acquired, said Thompson. 

“There is no question the Army recognizes that space capabilities, that information from space are vital to joint war fighting,” said Thompson. “It’s vital to the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines as well.”

More money for space?

The military’s growing appetite for space systems is reflected in the wish lists that leaders submit to the Pentagon for inclusion in budget requests, Thompson said, but it remains to be seen if future budgets will support the demand. 

Funding for space capabilities has increased in recent years as administrations recognized the importance of space, he said. Across the military, the services have concluded that space systems give them the ability to capture information and share it with forces around the world quickly, said Thompson. 

“We need more resources,” he said. Capabilities to gather, analyze and distribute information all require space and ground-based assets

All the services, the combatant commands and the Joint Staff are “in the process of identifying requirements that they need, that they expect the Space Force to be able to provide,” he said.

“They all recognize that an important part of that integrated network, and command and control mesh, will go through space and they’re already looking at us, the Space Force, and saying: ‘This is one of the reasons you were created, it’s time to get after it,’” said Thompson.

The budget request the Biden administration will submit for fiscal year 2022 is mostly wrapped up but “there’s a lot of work to do inside DoD, and with the administration and with Congress,” he said. “I think we’ll be in a reasonable position, the position we kind of sort of expected to be in. The challenge will be to see how it’s going to evolve in the future.”

The Pentagon has to balance lots of requests from every organization, Thompson noted. “I don’t think we’re different than the other services” in that not all requirements and demands can be funded. “We’re all on the same boat.”

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