Saltzman: Space Force still struggling with refueling math

WASHINGTON The Space Force is looking to an innovative in-orbit refueling technology, but there’s a key question: Is it worth the cost, especially as the military considers a shift to cheaper, single-use satellites use?

The jury is still out on the value proposition, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said at an April 30 hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) pressed Saltzman on the $20 million allocated in the Space Forces’ fiscal year 2025 budget to study the military utility of space services such as refueling.

“China has already demonstrated these capabilities,” Aderholt said, echoing comments made April 16 by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Refueling has immense appeal for expensive, high-value satellites in geostationary orbit, where replacing them can cost billions, Saltzman said. Refueling them could significantly extend their lifespan, making the cost of refueling a drop in the bucket compared to a whole new satellite.

However, the Space Force is looking to a future with a “proliferated architecture” with networks of many smaller, lower-cost satellites in lower orbits, he said. These constellations will provide similar functionality, but with built-in redundancy. If one satellite fails, others can pick up the slack. This feature that makes them valuable can also make them expendable.

The challenge for the Space Force is determining whether the benefits outweigh the costs, Saltzman explained.

Concerns about demand signals

On April 30, defense budget analysts expressed concern that the Space Force’s cautious approach to in-orbit refueling and other emerging commercial space services could have unintended consequences , such as the impact on private sector investment.

The Space Force’s hesitancy on space services sends a mixed message, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

In a National Security Space Association webinar, Harrison said investors need a clear signal of future demand to justify putting money into developing these new technologies.

They say they’re going to experiment a little bit, but they don’t have any plans on whether or not they intend to use it in the future, Harrison said. What they are saying is that we are not so sure there is a market.

“It’s very risky to invest in something where the client says, ‘we’ll give you some money right now, but we’re not committing to anything else long-term,'” Harrison said.

Mike Tierney, chief of legislative affairs for the National Security Space Association, said the Space Force must balance fiscal constraints and pressures to foster a robust domestic space industry.

The $20 million funding line for space mobility and logistics is frustrating, he said, because it suggests the program isn’t important enough to merit long-term funding.

But I’m not sure that’s really accurate, Tierney said. I don’t know if they will move away from that line.

Tierney said the Space Forces budget is under strain due to spending caps mandated by Congress, so many programs are not getting the funding that industry may have hoped for.

However, the government must communicate its future demands, Tierney said. Market signaling is what I think is so important. You need to be able to communicate to your business partners that they have viable investment opportunities to be taken seriously.

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