AMOS 2022 — A new memorandum of agreement between the Defense and Commerce Departments on space monitoring cooperation essentially kicks the can down the road on key issues — including the thorny, vital question of whether the Pentagon will have a veto on the dissemination of any commercial data gathered for a future civil space traffic management regime, according to a copy of the document obtained by Breaking Defense.
In short, the MoA simply pledges the two sides to cooperatively work to transfer of authority from DoD to Commerce over providing civil, commercial and non-US operators with space situational awareness data about the whereabouts of space objects, as well as STM services like warnings of potential on-orbit collisions. But specifics will be figured out by a joint working group later at an undecided date.
The MoA is a “framework” accord, according to US government officials, and a first step for implementing the 2018 guidance from the Trump administration’s Space Policy Directive-3. The MoA has not yet been made public; it is marked “controlled unclassified information” — a controversial categorization that allows restricted distribution, and one that has proliferated widely within DoD in recent years. As a result of that classification choice, DoD and Commerce officials are unable to comment on the record.
The MoA was signed on Sept. 7, by Gen. James Dickinson, SPACECOM commander; Gen. Jay Raymond, chief of the Space Force; John Plumb, new DoD assistant secretary for space policy; and Richard Spinrad, Commerce undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere. It was formally announced at the Sept. 9 National Space Council meeting.
Spinrad also is the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which among other duties licenses commercial remote sensing satellite operators. NOAA also is home to the Office of Space Commerce, which was tapped to implement SPD-3.
Regardless of the working group’s final decisions, one thing is locked in: DoD and US Space Command will retain the mission of monitoring the heavens for potentially dangerous activities and threats from potential adversaries, as well as keeping control of the military’s own network of largely classified radars and telescopes for doing so — what is known as “space domain awareness.” This includes maintaining the “authoritative” catalog of space objects.
There currently are plans to develop two annexes to the MoA to address first order business, although the accord leaves open the potential for more. Annex A will address how commercial data will be ingested into DoD’s catalog of space objects, and to “determine who is responsible for maintaining, coordinating, and exchanging relevant data and information,” per the memo’s language. Annex B will “determine and outline the roles and responsibilities of DoD Parties and DoC/NOAA in SSA and STM, including the review of SSA data sharing agreements.”
The goal of the framework MoA was to pledge DoD and Commerce to “get after implementing SPD-3” and “to codify the fact that we are going to work together,” a senior DoD official told Breaking Defense. It also serves to identify “the top few things that we need to focus on” as first priorities.” Further, the official said, the two sides expect to agree a schedule for the working group meetings and delivery of the annexes very soon.
From the Pentagon’s viewpoint, the rationale of the accord is “to make sure that DoC has what they need to perform the mission, and will be able to leverage what DoD can provide and offer to get them off running,” the senior DoD official explained.
The Office of Space Commerce, the official stressed, “will be establishing their own mechanisms for providing STM services. What expertise we can lend to them — whatever DoD Information and/or data — that’s yet to be worked out, but we’re going to set them up for success. The intention is not for us to be a guard or inhibit them.”
Other senior officials argued that the vagueness of the MoA isn’t a bug, but a feature. The use of annexes is a tried and true method to allow for the possibility that more detailed arrangements could be revised due to a change in facts on the ground, these sources said, such as technological leaps made by commercial companies.
Question Of Control
Nonetheless, the MoA reiterates that DoD by law, and administration policy, retains responsibility for “ensuring that the ‘release of data regarding national security activities to any person or entity with access to the repository is consistent with national security interests’.” (The MoA doesn’t document the provenance of that quote.)
The question of whether, when and how SPACECOM or other DoD offices could block the sharing of SSA data about space objects gathered by commercial companies for sharing via a civil agency is a long-standing one that has yet to be fully resolved.
“We all support Commerce and want them to succeed as soon as possible, but my fear is that they will be prevented from delivering on those goals,” Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden said in a email. “For example, commercial companies and scientists are right now tracking hundreds of space objects that are not in the DoD catalog. Will the DoD prevent Commerce from adding those new objects to its public catalog because of secrecy concerns? And what impact will that have on the ability to avoid collisions?”
For example, DoD currently reviews licenses issued by NOAA to commercial operators of satellite-based cameras designed to image other satellites — under rules promulgated in in 2020 that otherwise actually eased national security-minded restrictions on commercial remote sensing.
Traditionally, DoD and the Intelligence Community — as well as some US allies — have been leery about revealing the position of their national security satellites, because they wish to conceal their activities and characteristics. But industry operators and experts complain that this secrecy is not only unwarranted — given the fact that most satellites actually can be detected and tracked fairly easily by relatively inexpensive telescopes, and thus US adversaries as well — but also puts all satellites at risk.
Another key issues, said government and expert sources involved in the debate, is how much of even DoD’s internal catalog of unclassified space objects will be shared with Commerce, due to fears that users of the civil database could amalgamate that data to re-create classified information. (This is a problem that DoD and IC users of unclassified information often face in other arenas and/or in reports relying on media sources.)
“The desire for control and secrecy was a big part of why the DoD’s services were not keeping pace with the changes in the space domain to provide the products necessary to satisfy what end users needed,” Weeden said.
“The rationale to move to a non-DoD entity was to escape those restrictions and go beyond what the DoD can do to help address space traffic challenges. Ideally, that new system would would bring in data from multiple new sources to build a more comprehensive catalog and provide more accurate products,” he said.
The senior DoD official, however, countered that there is “no intent” to proscribe Commerce’s activities, noting that OSC will be working with unclassified SSA sources, not classified ones.
“We do work in an interagency [process], and for things that have a national security interest, we’re certainly going to express any concerns we might have,” the official added. “But … our goal is to set them up for success.”