Government Must Work with Private Sector to Secure Space, Experts Say

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Several former federal officials argued government should protect the industrial base without hindering innovation for space technologies.

With increased competition in space from other countries like China, it is imperative for the United States to preserve its use of space and associated economic interests, according to experts who spoke at Auburn University’s McCrary Institute roundtable on Friday. Speakers noted that government must work with the private sector to ensure that security.

“I don’t believe the government today is configured for a fast pace, rapid interoperability between commercial and space,” Mike Rogers, chairman of MITRE Corporation’s board of directors and a former Michigan congressman, said. “I don’t believe that we have taken seriously enough, what happens when we lose key pieces of our satellite architecture. How do we make up for that? So it’s not just defending it, but what do you do if it goes out?”

The panelists noted the importance of government protecting, but not hindering industry. 

“The threat surface extends to the private sector,” Sue Gordon, a technology and global risk consultant and Harvard University fellow, as well as a former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, said. “We need to find a way to ensure that that will be protected, but you can’t insert the government so strongly that you slow down what our industry does, because in fact, that engine is part of advantage. Being technological leaders is part of [our] advantage.” 

“All national security is economic, and the government’s role is to protect the industrial base to be stronger, more affordable, more agile and faster than the competition, no matter where that competition comes from. And sometimes it’ll come from one state, sometimes it will come from another,” said  Lt Gen Steven L. Kwast, USAF, Ret., and CEO of Skycorp Inc. “So ultimately, this is about stoking the fires of the industrial base, the commercial sector, the private sector, and allow the government to put its thumb on the scale in just enough way to help.”

Gordon noted in terms of security, which is “disproportionately important to free and open societies,” government and industry have to balance awareness and investment with the freedom to innovate.

She added that it must be a collaboration between defense, intelligence, congress, agencies like NASA and the commercial sector to protect innovation. Meanwhile, Kwast noted that working with the private sector will help spur innovation.

“In space, we have things such as artificial intelligence, quantum, laser communications and all these nuanced technologies,” Kwast said. “The journey ahead can be simplified by the government partnering with private companies and industry to stoke the industrial base and our young engineers and scientists will just knock the ball out of the park with all of these inventions that bypass the architecture we have. Because the architecture we have right now was never built or designed to be fast, to be affordable or to be resilient.”

According to Rogers, the U.S. needs a better handle on how it addresses cyber threats across government. He noted the U.S. should “create an architecture using our private sector” and address supply chain issues like semiconductors, so the U.S. can make other critical components or friendshore—the practice of manufacturing and sourcing from allies—those components.

“The cybersecurity threat isn’t necessarily just disruption, but what happens if the information that is coming down has been corrupted in some way?,” Rogers said. “And so your positioning system has you in one place. aAnd the folks who are making battlefield decisions or seaborne decisions are getting information that has that battle group or that ship or that submarine in a very different place, because through cyber attack [they’ve] been able to disrupt the information flow and insert packets in there that lead to bad decisions…so trusting information becomes a huge issue.”

Retired Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, executive director of CSC 2.0 and senior director of Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation for FDD, noted the government needs “strong input from the private sector” for some decision-making, adding that the U.S. should designate space as a critical infrastructure, which would be a signal to industry. 

Going forward, the panelists said the U.S. should focus on recognizing its competition, protecting funding, backing policy with resources and getting more involved in developing standards, among other things.

“This is a great time for the government to do what it does really well, which is to set a mark, farther the horizon, use its deep pockets and to eliminate sand in the gears and to let the private sector do what it does better than anything else,” Gordon said.