Adversaries’ Launch Cadence Highlights Need for Assured Access to Space 

National Security Space Launch Program Adapting to the Modern Threat Environment

At the start of 2024, the United States’ adversaries projected an ambitious launch cadence for putting space assets into orbit: China has planned 100 launches, while Russia has planned over 40 launches of its own. Due to what is often blurred lines between military, civil and commercial space programs for these nation-states, the true nature of these launches can be difficult to ascertain. Meanwhile, through its own National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, the United States has planned 21 launches in 2024 – nearly double its 2023 launch cadence. Altogether, these escalating launch cadences represent the operational imperative to maintain “Assured Access to Space,” (AATS), that has been a trademark of the United State’s space superiority for the past several decades. 

“Assured Access to Space is knowing the launch will be successful when we need to get payloads, satellites and instruments, particularly those for national security purposes, into space,” said General (Ret.) Lester L. Lyles, senior principal advisor at Elara Nova: The Space Consultancy. “The Assured Access to Space capabilities that China and Russia have established signal that the emerging threat environment in space is robust.” 

These high launch cadences are representative of what will be an increasingly congested environment for on-orbit satellites. In this more populated space domain, the NSSL program’s efficiency and reliability in getting military assets to orbit will be vital to the effectiveness of broader Department of Defense (DOD) efforts.  

“Maintaining Assured Access to Space also means maintaining our strategic advantage,” said General Lyles, the former Commander of Air Force Materiel Command for the United States Air Force (USAF). “For the most part, we have been successful in increasing our launch cadence on a cost-efficient and assured basis. But the threat environment shows that we need to further develop launch cadence capability, particularly for national security.” 

Developing Resiliency in Launch Providers

The DOD is actively bolstering its national security launch capabilities by broadening its pool of launch providers. Now in its third phase of contracts, the NSSL is delineating its awards across two ‘lanes.’ Lane One contracts are designated for smaller launch companies, particularly those that might not yet be certified for some defense missions. Meanwhile, Lane Two will be held for more established launch providers that can reliably meet more challenging and essential mission requirements.  

With this two-lane approach, the Space Force is seeking to meet its launch needs of today, while simultaneously creating a commercial space launch market for the future. 

“The two lane approach makes a great distinction,” said General Lyles, the former Vice Chief of Staff at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. “There is a profound need for small, proliferated launch providers that are developing inexpensive ways to launch payloads into orbit. But by reserving Lane Two missions for more mature and experienced launch providers, Lane One contracts can focus on a panoply of companies that provide cheaper access and capability.”  

Despite higher launch cadences, the intricacies of the launch process hardly guarantee a reliable rate of success. Launching assets into orbit is a difficult and expensive endeavor, where failure is – at times – an inevitability faced by both the United States and its adversaries.  

“Our adversaries have failures in launch, some of which we hear about and others that we don’t,” said General Lyles, who previously served as the Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. “So the best answer is to maintain the investment in our space launch capability, both Lane One and Lane Two, and ensure we put additional resources into encouraging innovative launch capabilities and activities that will keep pace with the emerging threat environment.” 

EELV Established Assured Access to Space

To support these efforts, the Space Force is looking to the commercial sector to develop solutions that will mitigate the risks and increase the reliability of launch. In essence, the two-lane approach the NSSL is taking today aims to establish the commercial launch market that never materialized under its predecessor: the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. 

“The main objective of EELV was to develop a family of launch vehicles that would be capable of leading the entire spectrum of weight classes for national security space launches,” said General Lyles, the former Commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center. “The United States anticipated a robust commercial launch market that would provide a cost-competitive and sufficient rate of launch vehicle options. That forecast never came into fruition, and so the EELV program had to change its acquisition strategy from a standard Air Force development program to a dual-commercialized approach, involving primarily the Atlas V and the Delta IV rockets.” 

Initiated in 1994, EELV was successful in establishing two different families of launch vehicles that maintained the United States’ AATS capability over the past several decades: Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V and The Boeing Company’s Delta IV. Today, national security space launches conducted with these rockets are operated under the dual-commercialized, joint-venture of the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  

“ULA stabilized the launch vehicle market,” said General Lyles, who previously served as the Director of the Medium-Launch Vehicles Program and Space-Launch Systems offices. “Building, developing and launching satellites is expensive and having assured access means that we – the military customer – can be assured that when it’s time to launch an asset into space, the satellite will get into orbit and function properly when it gets there. National security provides a steady market for launch and EELV ensured that we wouldn’t have to defer to foreign sources like the French, Japanese or even Russian launch systems.” 

A Name Change to Reflect a Changing Requirement

The EELV solution, however, still had traces of foreign sources within its supply chain. Namely, the Atlas V launch system relied on the RD-180 booster engine designed and manufactured by the Russian Federation. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2015 prohibited launch services with Russian-designed or manufactured engines. The NDAA was further amended in subsequent years to further incentivize domestic engine alternatives for the EELV program, which in turn also inspired a name change for the program to better reflect the evolving nature of the modern launch market. 

“The aims and objectives of NSSL remain the same as EELV,” General Lyles said. “But the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) directed the name change to ‘National Security Space Launch’ to reflect the consideration for both reusable and expendable launch vehicles in future solicitations.” 

This shift in prioritizing reusable and expendable launch vehicles is an emerging solution to accommodate the inherently risky and unpredictable nature of launch.  

“Assurance is the key buzzword,” General Lyles said. “We are achieving that goal of assurance, but I’m knocking on wood as an old launch developer who has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of launch. Assurance only comes with expert reviews ensuring every step in the launch process is done according to specification.” 

Innovative Launch Solutions to Maintain Assured Access to Space

Furthermore, Space System Command’s AATS program is also developing alternative counterspace capabilities in response to China and Russia’s ambitious launch cadences. One solution is the Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS) mission, in which launch services are accelerated on more responsive and operational timelines.  

“The idea that a peer competitor can demonstrate a high launch cadence means that we can’t just rest on our laurels,” General Lyles said. “We need to have the capability to rapidly put an asset into space to fulfill a strategic and tactical capability. That requirement necessitates a whole family of launch vehicles, as well as a suite of small and proliferated satellite capabilities and mission control systems, in order to be both rapid and responsive.” 

After the largely successful Victus Nox demonstration of TacRS capability in 2023, the Defense Innovation Unit is looking to accelerate launch timelines further through its next demonstration: Victus Haze. Therefore, AATS can be established with not just a high launch cadence, but by including other specialized counterspace capabilities as well.  

“As the United States, we need to be able to counter any potential peer threat in a rapid manner, so that we maintain superior space capabilities,” General Lyles said. “TacRS satisfies not only assured access, but rapid access for operational needs in space. Responsive space involves everything from requirements, to command and control, small satellite development and the actual launches to get a capability on-orbit rapidly. We have shown that we can prototype a program like that with Victus Nox.” 

The accelerated timelines responsive launch requires, however, also heightens the risks and challenges inherent to a successful launch. 

“Responsive timelines means you can’t depend on a slow decision process, a slow budget process, or a slow command and control capability,” General Lyles said. “Every element of the launch process needs to be examined to ensure we have honed the requirements and processes associated with the launch, so that we can rapidly respond to an immediate threat.” 

Space Force to Develop Future Capabilities and Requirements

Innovative operating concepts like TacRS will be a prominent characteristic of Space Futures Command, which the Space Force is standing up to support its broader efforts in developing counterspace capabilities for the future threat environment in space. Therefore, with a steadily increasing launch cadence, combined with other capabilities such as TacRS, the future AATS requirement and capability can be realized.  

“I’m encouraged by the Secretary of the Air Force’s emphasis on developing capabilities that match or exceed our peer competitors,” General Lyles said. “Space Futures Command will not only consider the future needs and capabilities for space, but will also develop the personnel to operate and implement counterspace solutions.” 

This forward-thinking mindset is also embraced at Elara Nova, where its roster of military and space industry experts understand the role of innovative and critical thinking in developing solutions and capabilities that meet the national security space demands of the future.  

“Elara Nova utilizes their team of subject matter experts, who demonstrate leadership and a willingness to explore new capabilities,” General Lyles said. “Elara Nova’s experts don’t just rely on what we know of today’s capabilities, but are innovative in understanding the evolving threat environment so the Department of Defense and the National Security Space Launch community can make the appropriate upgrades to accomplish assured and rapid access to space.” 

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