Happy New Year? Another Geopolitical Crisis & More Of The Same In D.C. 

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In this episode, Roman Schweizer, Aerospace and Defense Policy Analyst discusses the top geopolitical and defense issues in Washington in two parts. 

In part one, he discusses macro themes including the budget, upcoming elections, and global crises with Marjorie Censer, Editor at Defense News and Aaron Mehta, Editor in Chief of Breaking Defense.  

For part two, he has an in-depth discussion on military and civil space with Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

Press play to listen to the podcast.

Transcript

Aaron Mehta:

I would’ve give a lot of money to be at the NSC meeting where they got the call saying, by the way, the Secretary of Defense has been in the hospital for three days and we just forgot to mention it to you.

Roman Schweizer:

From DoD to Congress and from the White House to Wall Street, the NatSec Need-to-Know podcast. An unrehearsed podcast presenting insightful discussion and forecasts of the major national security and defense news of the day.

In this segment, we’ve got our Reporters Roundtable featuring Marjorie Censer of Defense News and Aaron Mehta of Breaking Defense. They’ve each covered Washington and the Pentagon for years and are as well sourced as anyone.

In segment two, we’ll turn to a focused discussion on everything space, with Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the go-to guys on defense and civil space policy spending and programs. Thank you all for joining. Let’s get after it.

We will fly the missing man formation for our good friend Marcus who could not join us.

I want to start off with really what only could be a Washington story and a crisis, and of course this is the very serious nature of Secretary of Defense Austin’s cancer diagnosis and treatment and then radio silence out of DoD. And what did the White House know, and when? If you want to take this on, first, maybe Aaron, where’s this at and how serious a deal is this? What do we think? There’s been uproar from the Hill and elsewhere?

Aaron Mehta:

It’s both a serious deal, I think, in a lot of very serious ways and also one of those things that as you said is a very Washington problem. The Washington problem, part of it is the question of, was there impropriety here that the Secretary of Defense didn’t want to inform people that he was sick and was radio silent? And how did his staff let this happen and go on for so long? We’re told that the majority of the staff had heard by Tuesday and that nobody bothered to apparently inform the White House. According to reports, the Deputy Secretary of Defense was not informed and certainly the media wasn’t informed until Friday night. So there’s a several days gap there. What can best be described generously as a complete breakdown of procedures and bureaucracy that’s supposed to make sure stuff like this doesn’t happen.

The very serious part of it is that he’s in the chain of command of any sort of… Not even nuclear but military decisions that he needs to be a part of that. And the President should know if his Secretary of Defense is in the hospital. Talking with folks around DC, people, not just in the media, but in the Pentagon, people in Congress, people who are around that world, everyone’s just flabbergasted this could happen. It’s one of those things where nobody seems to be able to explain really how this could possibly have happened, but there could have been serious repercussions if, and thankfully there wasn’t. There was a crisis situation that the Secretary needed to be weighing in on.

We still don’t know exactly, and Marjorie, your team has done some reporting on this, but exactly the status of the Secretary for several days there. They say that he wasn’t on a general anesthesia, but I can tell you having seen a family member go through being in the hospital with a UTI and that’s what put him back in the hospital here according to the Pentagon, there could be a lot of pain medication involved. So we don’t know how coherent or on top of things he was for that period. We probably will never know, and that’s a pretty big deal when we’re talking about the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America.

Roman Schweizer:

Marjorie, anything you’d like to add on that or your perspective on both the Washington aspects of the story, which really just, in this environment opens up the Biden administration, the adults are in charge kind of thing. And then the real world aspects of it, with multiple crises going on around the world, you can’t be a person down in this situation.

Marjorie Censer:

And just to continue on what Aaron was saying, we are seeing that uproar on the Hill, House Armed Services Committee saying they’re launching an investigation. We have at least one lawmaker, by my last count, calling for an impeachment. The Biden administration, I don’t think, is eager to try to confirm another Defense Secretary this year. That sounds like a battle they don’t want to have. So I do think there’s… You hinted at this as a Washington story. I think that the general public’s interest or outrage is probably relatively limited. From inside the DC bubble, I don’t know that this escalates, but certainly on the Hill there’s outrage, there’s upset and more details about this could come out in these investigations.

Roman Schweizer:

Look, to be fair, this is a very human story, right? We’re talking about cancer, we’re talking about a delicate surgery. You got a lot of things that… Discretion would be normally acceptable in this circumstance, but you still always want your boss to know that you’re going to be out of pocket and certainly when your Deputy goes on vacation to Puerto Rico or whatever, as I think the reporting has said, that Kath Hicks was on vacation, you’re like, there’s ways around that, right? If it’s scheduling and it’s elective, and again, I know elective is a big question mark because you don’t really want to wait around on a cancer diagnosis. There’s just ways to better manage this, and I think that’s really, I guess, it comes down to the judgment question. But Aaron, I saw you had your hand up, so what do you want to add?

Aaron Mehta:

There is precedent for how a cabinet member shares information about their health. Certainly the President, we know whenever he goes in for a routine colonoscopy or routine elective procedure, a statement is issued. We’ve seen that from other cabinet secretaries as well. The Attorney General goes in for a procedure, there’s a notification in the media. The Pentagon really just slapped itself in the face with how they handled this because they could have just issued a statement saying the Secretary went in for a procedure, had to return to the hospital. He’s aware and functioning, but he’s going to be recovering. Or just something basic. And it would’ve been a fairly short story, and then when he came back to work, it would’ve been okay, Austin’s back and it’s fine. They blew it up by trying to… And according to Pat Ryder, the one-star General who’s the spokesperson [inaudible 00:06:33] unintentionally, effectively by default, covering it up for several days, including the true sin of not reporting it up the chain to the White House.

I would’ve give a lot of money to be at the NSC meeting where they got the call saying, by the way, the Secretary of Defense has been in the hospital for three days and we just forgot to mention it to you. I would love to have a camera going at that moment. But this is going to be an issue now when Austin goes up to the Hill in a month or two months or three months or whenever the budget actually comes and has to answer to Congress. And Marjorie brought this up, there are a number of Republicans who are jumping on this as a fireball impeachable, this makes you question your judgment offense. This didn’t have to be a big issue for Austin. They turned it into one for him.

Marjorie Censer:

Right. At best this is a distraction, right? Even if it dies down, this is what he’s going to have to talk about when he’d prefer to talk about budget priorities and modernization and troops and all sorts of other things.

Roman Schweizer:

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I did bring up the idea of Kath Hicks as SecDef and I got shouted down for good reason, but it may wind up that I have unfortunately jinxed Lloyd Austin. Kath will be acting through the election.

All right. We did mention spending and lo and behold, in secret, perhaps over the break, it seems that Chuck Schumer and Mike Johnson have agreed to a deal, spending deal. I’d have to say over the holiday break I was pinging people and did not get any word of this or any even whispers. So to the four people who negotiated this, it was probably a pretty tight circle although we all knew what was going to kind of happen anyway. But things are going to run tight here. Conservatives, Freedom Caucus guys are obviously very hurt, either real or pretend. And we’ve got a January 19th CR date and then defense, February 2nd.

Just your thoughts on how all this is coming in terms of spending and if you see anything to look… I think we’re on the glide slope to getting this done. I think I described it as being the messiest way possible, so that fits. That’s on brand for Washington these days. But any things that you would point out, in terms of how we pull this all together by February 2nd or maybe there’ll be another CR?

Marjorie Censer:

I would say I’d agree with you that it seems like signs are looking positive to get this done and in typical Washington fashion, it normally seems like these things tend to take up right up to the deadline, so never hold your breath. But I think the supplemental part is the question mark too, and there’s these negotiations going on, I guess on the immigration piece of it, and that I think is a little more up in the air of how that comes together.

Aaron Mehta:

I think to me the biggest thing is one, this shows at least Johnson, who is really still a pretty unknown character in Washington, by Washington circles, to become Speaker of the House. It’s probably a good sign for people who hope for at least some stability over the next year that he was able to work this out in pretty quiet confidence, as you mentioned Roman, with the Democrats in the Senate and make this all work so that there’s at least something moving forward. I think that’s probably a good sign for how he’s going to approach 2024, which, if anybody listened to the last episode, one of the big things we talked about was how the election season is going to derail everything. Maybe this is a sign of optimism that some form of regular government can still happen.

But to Marjorie’s point, look, it feels like everyone in Congress should actually have been a journalist because the one rule for us is you work, you work, you work until the absolute last second of the deadline and then you turn in your best effort. So that seems to be how Congress is operating these days. I got to think, just based on some of the quotes that have come out, that there’ll be maybe another CR to push everything to that February 2nd date just to give appropriators enough time to actually work out the language. I believe Mitch McConnell said something along those lines recently.

But you’re right, Roman, sure seems like there’s a much better chance as we record this today than when we recorded the last podcast that there’s going to actually be a ’24 budget three months late, four months late, but that’s better than it could be.

Roman Schweizer:

Spoiler alert, for those fans of regular order, this is all going to go down in a big massive on the bus with a security supplemental attached to it, probably a tax package, and it’s going to be just the kind of thing that the House Freedom Caucus guys said they never would do, and they’re going to have it jammed down their throat at the last minute, just like we all knew it would happen. Just like what always happened. And then the second thing I would say is I’m going to throw cold water on your hopefulness for the ’24 outlook because this is the only thing they’re going to get done before the election. Really Congress, you have one job, so just do this. My favorite phrase is, if you wait till the last minute, it will only take a minute. So just keep that in mind. Feel free to use that.

Aaron Mehta:

Roman, I think you’re being a little pessimistic though. I do think you got to remember there’s going to be an impeachment.

Roman Schweizer:

Right, right. Yeah, exactly. They’re going to do stuff.

Aaron Mehta:

Don’t forget, Congress is also going to manage an impeachment process throughout this too.

Roman Schweizer:

Exactly. All right. And then in very serious news, we still do have a lot of shooting going on in the world and right now, actually yesterday, the Houthis in Yemen staged their largest attack, I think 21. I think it was something like maybe 18, one-way drones, a couple of anti-ship ballistic missiles, just kind of the works, while Tony Blinken is in the region trying to whip up Allied support and prevent the war from spreading and all this stuff. Yesterday, I was at Surface Navy Association, which is the big forum for the Surface Navy, the cruisers and destroyers and stuff like that, and these are the ships on station.

The one thing I would say is, I think there’s a lot more going on than the administration wants to talk about, and again, I’m happy to say this that I think the administration is downplaying this a little bit. Not everybody has eyes on what’s going on in the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aden, but this is some pretty heady stuff going on. I think this puts the number at maybe 20 missiles and UAVs that have been shot down since this all started. Just any sense from you guys in terms of reporting or anything in terms of how DoD is handling this additional contingency and what the administration is doing to keep a lid on the conflict from spreading, not necessarily manage the information aspect of it. Marjorie, do you have any thoughts on that?

Marjorie Censer:

I don’t have specific thoughts on what’s happening there. I do think that your point is well taken that this is probably a number four story in the US press. This is not getting maybe the attention that you might expect, given other things going on. What I was hearing from Surface Navy though is that this is a clear example of the fact that the Navy needs to be ready. They need to be ready for combat, and I think for years it’s been the Navy needs to be ready for China. And I think the past two years, something like that, has been a reminder. It’s like you need to be ready for anything and maybe multiple anythings.

So I think that that is the lens I’m looking at this through and what I’m hearing from the conference circuit as it’s happening is this is just an example of that. The Navy isn’t necessarily as ready as it needs to be, and this is an illustration of why you need to be ready. Readiness is a term that’s thrown around and here’s a really serious situation that wasn’t necessarily the focus six months ago, 12 months ago, 24 months ago.

Aaron Mehta:

What’s interesting, putting aside the umpteenth attempt to pivot to the Pacific and only to get dragged back to the Middle East, which is about as American as apple pie at this point. A big part of how the US was hoping to manage everything in the region was by creating these largely naval-based task forces with local forces. You had a number of different operations going on in the various bodies of water there, including the Red Sea, and we saw over the last six, seven months, before the Israeli conflict really kicked off and things went haywire even more so than normal.

We saw that there were some issues with getting some countries involved, even though there’s some announcements of new ones, notably the Red Sea Task Group, which is the naval-based task group. The formal name of which I don’t have right in front of me at the moment. The Saudis would be a perfect partner for that, and they’ve declined to join it. Reporting from our person in the region, Agnes Helou is our reporter there, says that it’s largely because the Saudis are annoyed that we didn’t take the Houthi threat seriously the way they did and that they wanted to send us a message, and now the Red Sea is suddenly a major flashpoint. To Marjorie’s point, it’s not the top piece of news in the US but that’s not because it’s not important or really dramatically changing at a rapid pace.

So I think a lot of what the US had been hoping, strategizing and planning for how it would handle the region is really being thrown in disarray right now, and you’re seeing the seams, and to Marjorie’s point, that’s where the Navy’s ability to quickly get forces and technology and people into the region is going to really be tested and I think is proving its importance.

Roman Schweizer:

And just as a reminder, or for folks who don’t know, the Biden administration took the Houthis off the terrorist watch list in, I think, it was February of 2021, and then obviously all the various deal making for one reason or another with the Biden administration and the government of Iran has displeased the Saudis and MBS, which has not been a great relationship anyway. And this is clearly something that has just not… Perhaps hasn’t been a critical error in the Biden administration, but there’s just so much going on that now this is just a complicating factor to make things even worse. And look, I think, to me, I flagged something last week. The Ford Carrier Battle Group has left the Eastern Med, but you’ve got the two carrier battle groups on station. One in the Red Sea and one in the Philippines, which again, this operating in the South China Sea, they’re playing referee or showing intent with our allies.

So it is a busy time, not just Israel and/or Ukraine, which are obviously two preeminent crises. All right, let’s shift gears just a little bit. We didn’t really do a wrap up of last year. We talked about a lot of things, but I just wanted to see if there was one big story from that, a kind of carryover. Obviously we talked about crises, we talked about budget, the election cycle, but anything that you guys or particularly have your staffs on the hunt for or things that you think we’re going to be hearing about over the course of this year and into the election season?

Marjorie Censer:

You know we can’t disclose the things that we’re on the hunt for. Highly, highly secret efforts over here. I still think the macro themes are the same. I think that it’s the budget, it’s the election, it’s the crises, crises everywhere. I still think from where we stand, which is a lot focused on acquisition policy and programs, a lot of attention to replicator, that’s definitely an area of interest to us as well as other areas of emerging tech. We’re interested in space, we’re interested in AI, we’re interested in the drone world. So all of those are themes that we’re going to be tracking closely within those kinds of macro ones that I laid out.

Aaron Mehta:

I’ve been on paternity leave since the start of December, so my insight into what the team has been told by my maligned and overwhelmed managing editor right now is thankfully not something I have a huge insight into. I can say if you go to our site, breakingdefense.com, you will see our year-end look back, and we also did a series of year-end looking forward pieces, each reporter write a little piece about what they’re looking forward to on their beat. So to get into specifics of that, I’d say go check those pieces out. The Navy reporter wrote about the Navy, the Air Force reporter wrote about the Air Force, et cetera, et cetera. It’s going to give you a sense of what we’re looking at for the next year.

Roman Schweizer:

Great. [inaudible 00:19:43] Marjorie, you brought up Replicator. It’s just something I wanted to touch on. I was astounded by the… I don’t want to say hate pieces that came over, it came out in December, but just DoD has no idea what it’s doing. Where’s the [inaudible 00:19:58]? All this kind of great stuff.

Great as Kath Hicks is, I think she rolled out an idea before it was fully baked, which is something you should never ever do in DC or certainly the Pentagon. And I think they’re quickly putting some meat on the bones to this idea. And in fact, I think one of the defense officials was at CSIS yesterday suggesting that they were on track. And you’re going to hear some industry griping back and forth, even with something, an idea like Replicator, DoD can’t move fast enough. Just anything that you all have heard, about whether DoD has its act together and is pushing the boundaries. I think anytime you get the Deputy Secretary of Defense engaged in something, magic’s going to happen pretty quick, I think, or at least that’s been my experience. How about you guys, in terms of where you think it ought to be headed in the next couple of months?

Marjorie Censer:

I’d love to take this one. Actually, I’m quite proud of the deep dive we published on Replicator in December, which I would say, is not a hate piece, is not a love piece. It’s a real fair look at what’s happening here. And I think it’s fair to say that, it was rolled out very perhaps early. We had some details in our piece that members of Congress didn’t know about it. People in the building didn’t know about it. A lot of people were caught flat-footed. But in the interviews that our reporter did, they didn’t think it was a bad idea, just because it was rolled out in that way. I think most people thought it was a good idea. And one of the quotes, I was just pulling up the story because I thought it was funny. We had a quote from the head of the Silicon Valley Defense group who said basically, you can’t have it both ways. For years, the Pentagon has heard it’s not adopting new technology fast enough. Now it’s trying to move faster and accept more uncertainty, and the response is a demand for more details.

So it’s like you can’t have it all the ways that you want it. I think in DC defense circles, there can be something of a skepticism. We went through Secretary Work’s Third Offset. We’ve heard these high-flying initiatives before, but a lot of the people interviewed said, this is the right way to be going. This is the right thing to be doing. And a lot of industry is heading in that direction anyway, even before Replicator was announced. So yes, I think there is a desire, a demand for, we want details, we want contracts, we want to see the money, but the fact that they haven’t done that now, I don’t think means that it’s the wrong idea or the wrong direction. I don’t think that’s the perception of industry or of the experts in this world.

Roman Schweizer:

Fair enough. And I would be remiss if I slandered your organization’s fine work, which I did not.

Marjorie Censer:

I didn’t take it that way.

Roman Schweizer:

But honestly, some of it, and I will characterize it this way, some of those comments in your publication and others were, what I would say is the peanut gallery chirping about, “Hey, where’s the money? Where’s the follow through?” Which is a natural thing. I’m obviously being perhaps a little too glib or irreverent on this, but it is.

Marjorie Censer:

Yeah. And members of Congress too, we’ve re-quoted members of Congress saying, “We have no details. What is this? You can’t just give something a fun name and say it’s a real thing.” I think you are absolutely right that there is a criticism of, we would like to see details and we’d like to see more evidence that this is a live thing. But I think that they set out a pretty ambitious timeline. So if contracts don’t start flowing relatively quickly, it becomes obvious that they’re behind schedule.

Roman Schweizer:

And I think again, now, the one thing I would say is, which to me, is going to be the real sorcery involved, is if they manage to do this without additional money, because that’s the one complaint that I’ve heard. And/or it’s with the pending industrial based strategy that’s going to be rolled out here shortly, that’s great, but if you spend it, they will come, but if you don’t pony up the dollars, it’s just not going to happen.

Marjorie Censer:

There’s the anecdote that when Secretary Hicks first announced Replicator, industry was like, ah, and then the next week she said, no new money, and quickly they deflated. All the air went out of the room. So I do think that is a challenge, but also you look at the budget that DoD has, it feels like, can they move stuff around? You would think so.

Roman Schweizer:

Marjorie, come on. How long you been doing this?

Aaron, anything you’ve just picked up on? I know you may need a little while to get current, but your thoughts, and I know you had some thoughts prior to this.

Aaron Mehta:

I think ultimately at the core of it, Marjorie is right that this is a situation where nobody says what Kath Hicks came out with and Replicator is a bad idea. Everyone agrees, “Hey, this is possibilities and this is the direction we should be going in.” The questions all seem to be based around, how is this going to work? Where’s the money going to be? As Kath Hicks said, there’s no new money. So what does that actually mean?

Ultimately, I think we’ve seen solicits come out of the Pentagon over the last couple of months, which mentioned Replicator. A lot of these seem like the type of things that maybe the Pentagon was looking to buy anyway. And so my guess is that at least in the short term, a lot of Replicator is going to look like JADC2 did for a while, which is just, well, what’s JADC2? We’ll call anything JADC2, and that’ll be all domain.

So that’s how we’ll mark it up. I expect to see a number of programs being marked up as Replicator. We’ll be able to say, “Hey, we put X number of programs on contract under replicator.” I think a lot of these are going to be things they were already looking to buy anyway. I think the real test is going to be down the road, maybe the FY ’26 request. What’s an actual new novel capability designed around the China threat that will actually have come out of the Replicator fishing exhibition? That’s ultimately what this, is Hicks is saying to industry, “Show me what you’ve got and we want to see what we can get out of it.” So DoD is waiting probably to hear back in some cases. In the meantime, you’re going to buy some small drones that the Army was interested in. Well say, “Hey, these might be Replicator.” You can chalk up some wins on paper.

Roman Schweizer:

Exactly. I think my equivalent story is, back in the day when transformation was the term of art, everything from the F-22 to the Army’s new combat boot was listed as transformational. So I love the JADC2 bumper sticker, which is just glorious. May it live forever. And certainly Replicator. But look, in the real sense, I would love to see the Replicator applied to some of the maritime systems and some of the ground robotic systems that have really not progressed as quickly as some of the other solutions. But certainly, look, if the Houthis are using one-way drones and unmanned surface vessels or kamikaze boats, and certainly the Ukrainians are, I certainly would hope DoD and the US Navy and others are not sleeping on this.

Aaron Mehta:

One thing that I’m really interested in seeing is whether this remains a China-focused effort. That’s how Hicks pitched it in her initial response. That’s how it’s been marketed. But we’ve seen the Middle East as we discussed change, we’ve seen Ukraine remain to be an issue. So as we start to see more programs marked as Replicator, I’m really curious to see if it’s still all about China or if we start to see things that are applicable in different ways. I think in the maritime patrol boats that are being turned into suicide drones in the Middle East, as an example of, maybe this is something where Replicator has the technologies that can be branded quickly as Replicator and bought quickly, put in the field quickly, applicable there and might actually see the first action there. I think that’s something to definitely keep an eye on.

Roman Schweizer:

That’s a great point and certainly perhaps some of the nuance in the initial rollout, but again, this is certainly meant to be applicable in not just the China theater and probably has more ready uses in other regions like the Middle East or Europe. Well, that’s great. Thank you everyone. We’re out of time for our journal panel.

Now we’re going to shift gears and go to our focus discussion on US civil, military and commercial space. I’m joined by Todd Harrison. Todd is a familiar face or voice in Washington, and most folks are probably familiar with his insightful budget analyses, but he’s also the go-to guy on all things space, and we’re going to get into some of the details and major themes on US and international space policy and some of the big topics in the year ahead.

Todd, it’s great to see you. Thanks so much for doing this and let’s talk about space.

Todd Harrison:

Sure thing. Let’s do it.

Roman Schweizer:

I guess it’s been a while. You’ve been a long time observer of the Zero-G environment. How has it changed over the last, call it eight, maybe 10 years? I think thematically that’s the one thing people have slowly come to grips with, but from both a national security, civil and even commercial perspective, describe the change you’ve seen.

Todd Harrison:

If you just look at the charts in terms of the number of space launches per year, the number of new satellites going into orbit, we’ve just seen exponential growth unlike anything we’ve seen in the past, since the launch of Sputnik through present. We are at an unprecedented time and that increase, both in the launch rate and in the number of satellites, is being primarily, overwhelmingly driven by the commercial space sector and SpaceX in particular. The numbers are just off the charts. In 2023, there were over 200 launches globally. SpaceX was responsible for 96 of those. They broke their previous record from 2022, and it’s only going to continue going up from there.

Roman Schweizer:

That is really impressive. And I just want to restate, the number of launches and activity is beyond what was going on at the height of the space race, right?

Todd Harrison:

If you go back and you think like the height of the space race, global launches around the ’60s to ’70s, they peaked around 120, 130 launches per year globally. So we are well above that now. And the United States, our launch rate peaked back in 1966. It’s 71 launches, and here we were in 2023, the United States alone had 103 launches. So we are well beyond what we ever were at the peak of the space race.

Roman Schweizer:

And I do want to just give one shout out and we will provide a link in the show notes, Todd has put something magical together over at AEI and he’s got a tracker of launch activity and satellites on orbit and space debris. It’s just great stuff to grab a cup of coffee or bourbon and sit down and really see what’s going on and track some of those numbers. Talk to me about the national security side because that’s also been the big change, not only in spending, but really in strategy and the types of satellites and things like that, and we’ve only seen that accelerate. So how would you describe that shift?

Todd Harrison:

It’s a little bit different of a story when you just look at military and intelligence satellites being launched. Those numbers have been growing quite a bit as well, although we’re actually only at about the level, in terms of the number of satellites, military satellites being launched this year. We’re at about the level that we were at the peak in the Cold War. We haven’t really gone too much above that yet.

The big difference though, in the past eight years, is the rise of China and the relative decline of Russia. Russia is… They’re running out of money and they’re not able to launch or replace as many of their satellites as they have traditionally done in the past, whereas China is just going gangbusters and building out their space capabilities. The U.S. is also increasing its launch rate in terms of number of satellites it’s putting up there. That’s about to explode in the next two to three years as the Space Development Agency starts launching their satellites in large numbers. They launched some initial Tranche 0 satellites this year, but they’re really going to be getting into high gear in the next two to three years in launching those satellites to build out this proliferated war fighter architecture.

Roman Schweizer:

And I note that you used the word explode, not the best reference when we’re talking of rockets. Those things cost a lot, but they do tend to explode as well as any good observer will tell you. You mentioned SDA, you mentioned about proliferated architectures, but let’s talk a little bit about space war and the strategy piece of it. I think it was, maybe perhaps one of the former Air Force Secretaries, and I’m probably mangling these a little bit, but I think it was Heather Wilson maybe, who said that not only may the next war be fought in space, but it may start in space. The U.S. has relied for decades on all of these capabilities, whether it’s GPS, imagery, comms, all these things that are the secret sauce to the joint force and China and Russia are not bashful about developing anti-satellite capabilities, and that’s forced a major change. Talk a little bit about that, how you’ve seen that progression.

Todd Harrison:

People like to call space the ultimate high ground, but I like to think of it as the ultimate enabler. So for the military, there are so many things that are enabled and in some cases are only possible because of our space-based capabilities. Our military and other militaries, more advanced militaries, Russia, China, a lot of our NATO allies, a lot of our major non-NATO allies as well, like Japan, Australia, Korea [inaudible 00:35:32] space-based capabilities. It’s a key enabler for all of us. That of course means that space naturally becomes a legitimate and highly valued target when you get into a conflict.

The idea of the next conflict beginning in space rather than extending into space, I would argue, that just happened. When Russia invaded Ukraine, one of the first attacks that they carried out was a cyber attack against a U.S. commercial satellite system, Viasat. They launched an attack, a cyber attack that went after the modems of the ground receivers that connected these satellites because that’s what the Ukrainian military depended on, and they blocked them out. And this affected not just the military users, but civilian users as well, but what do they care? It’s Russia. But that was right at the beginning of the Russian invasion.

So that’s a good lesson to learn that in the future we need to anticipate this. And even before overt conflicts begin, we may see shadow conflicts happening in space where countries jam or [inaudible 00:36:59] each other’s satellites, temporarily blind imagery satellites or even maybe permanently damage them. These kinds of soft kill attacks that aren’t explosive, they don’t produce a lot of debris or anything like that, but they happen quietly and they can be used to send a signal and they may be viewed as something that is below the threshold. That’s kind of a gray zone like activity, but in space.

Roman Schweizer:

I know a couple of guys who used to hold clearances, but we won’t get anywhere near that kind of stuff. But when people talk about those capabilities in space, obviously there’s the kinetic aspect of putting, colliding a rocket or warhead into a satellite, creating an explosion that sends about 10,000 fragments whipping around the orbit and really creates a hazard. And that’s what the Chinese did. I guess, correct me if I’m wrong, 2011, was there a big ASAT? I think it was 20-

Todd Harrison:

2007.

Roman Schweizer:

2007.

Todd Harrison:

Big test.

Roman Schweizer:

Yeah, that was their big ASAT test with a kinetic capability. But as you’ve talked about, its lasers, it’s jamming, it’s spoofing, it’s all of those things. And then, really the most, to me, it’s this great, the dual use emergent technology is, on orbit satellite servicing, which is, you have a micro-satellite that can attach to an existing satellite on orbit and refuel it or perform repairs or do things like that, but you could just as easily flip it around for nefarious purposes. And that’s something that we’re only starting to see more and more of.

Todd Harrison:

It actually takes you back to the early days of the Cold War. One of the first anti-satellite weapons that the Soviets started testing and trying to perfect was a co-orbital ASAT weapon. It was a satellite that was designed to hang out in orbit and then when commanded, it would intentionally collide with another satellite. Wouldn’t actually try to dock with it. That was too hard. But just try to collide with it. And they tested those co-orbital ASAT weapons, gosh, about two dozen times, throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, and produced a decent amount of debris while doing that as well.

But nothing really matches the Chinese 2007 ASAT test in terms of the amount of debris it produced. That just blows everything else off the charts, pun intended. But also, it’s a good indicator, if we got into a kinetic conflict in space, that ASAT test is a good indicator of what we could expect from each and every attack like that because they did not do anything to try to minimize the amount of debris produced or to try to put the debris into orbits that would decay within a few weeks around. Just to give you some numbers, this is just the trackable debris. Things are about the size of a softball or larger. We can’t track all the small debris, but just stuff about the size of a softball or larger. That Chinese ASAT test produced about 3,500 pieces of debris initially. After five years, 3,300 pieces of it were still on orbit, and even today, just under 2,700 pieces of debris are still on orbit from that attack. This stuff does not go away quickly when you explode a satellite at that type of an altitude.

Now, in comparison, the Russians did a kinetic ASAT test back in 2021. Not too long, just a few months before the Ukraine invasion. What were they thinking? Were they trying to send us a message or something? Who knows, but they did it. That ASAT test, it produced about 1,800 pieces of debris initially, but within one year, only 500 pieces of debris from that were still on orbit. And then today only 78 pieces are still on orbit.

Why the difference? Well, they did it at a lower altitude, and it looks like their intercept was actually at a slightly downward trajectory. The interceptor was coming down slightly when it hit the target satellite, so it pushed more of the debris into a velocity vector that was closer to the atmosphere, so things burned up quicker. It just goes to show you can do these tests in these destructive events in a way that maximizes debris or tries to minimize it, and the Chinese, back in 2007, and it appears they either did not care or did not know what they do.

Roman Schweizer:

That’s amazing, and a very interesting point. So we briefly, a different discussion that talked about just the large amount of space debris and traffic. There’s debris and there’s also traffic. DoD has a space fence program to develop ground-based radar to look upwards. There are also constellations and vision of space-based systems that would look downward to help track objects, satellites and other fast-moving lethal objects in space. So tracking space junk, real-time is a full-time job for some people, and you really do have to move these assets around while they’re in orbit to avoid these collisions. You want to talk a little bit about that, as both defense, commercial and NASA and other space programs have to deal with this?

Todd Harrison:

That’s one of the unique features that we’re seeing in the past eight years or so in the space domain. I talked about the launch rate and the number of new satellites going up has been increasing exponentially. A lot of those satellites, they stay in orbit. So if you go back to around the year 2000, the United States, and so this includes US companies, US government, military, everything. The United States, in total, had less than 1,000 satellites on orbit. If you look at the numbers today, the United States has more than 7,000 satellites on orbit. Now, the vast majority of those belong to SpaceX and the Starlink constellation that makes up just over 5,000, almost 5,500 satellites that are in orbit. Of course, by the time this airs, it’s probably going to be up to 5,600. They keep launching so quickly.

So we are driving that trend. You do not see the similar type of slope for other countries. It is the US who’s driving it, but that is complicating space operations for everyone. When you’re looking to launch, when you’re looking to put your satellite into orbit, you’ve got a lot of other objects that you’ve got to take into account. Debris, but also active satellites.

Roman Schweizer:

Shifting gears, I guess, a little bit to just the commercial side, but I guess, as well from defense. Where do you see the big growth areas or disruptive areas, and perhaps… Is it launch, is it these smaller LEO/MEO constellations? Is it payloads, new technologies and payloads? What do you think are some of the things to look for this year and in the coming year?

Todd Harrison:

I think one of the biggest disruptors we are seeing is the deployment of these very large constellations of satellites on the commercial side, but also on the military side. On the commercial side, obviously SpaceX with Starlink, is way up there in terms of numbers, but Amazon, their Kuiper constellation that will compete directly with Starlink, that’s set to start launching in significant numbers this year. And OneWeb, of course, is already up there, remains to be seen how economically viable the OneWeb system is going to be. Are they going to be a major player in the LEO SATCOM market going forward? We’ll see. That’ll probably sort itself out in 2024 depending on how many subscribers they get. But on the military side, it’s really interesting to see these mega constellations starting to grow. In the US, that is driven by the Space Development Agency, and they’re building out a constellation that’s for what they call data transport, essentially communications. They’re also building out a sensing constellation that’s for missile detection, launch detection, and missile tracking throughout all phases of flight.

So there’s a lot of cool things that they are building into those proliferated constellations, and we’re going to see those really start to take shape in 2024. But I would say that the biggest disruptive event that we’re likely to see happen in 2024 is going to be in launch, and it is the SpaceX Starship, new launch vehicle, the super heavy launch vehicle. They’ve had two test flights so far, haven’t quite gotten the whole system to work. That’s to be expected, but they’re eyeing their next test launch sometime in February, pending FAA approval. It may take a few more tests after that before they get this thing fully working and putting objects in orbit. It may take even more before they get the reusability working of both the first stage and the second stage.

But once they do, and they eventually will, you can count on it. Once they do, here’s why it’s such a disruptive event. Each one of those Starship launches will have the payload capacity of about 10, Falcon 9 launches. It’s huge. The payload fairing inside it is eight meters compared to four or five meters for traditional heavy launch vehicle. So you can put just a massive payloads or stacks of massive numbers of satellites into a single launch vehicle. The other disruptive thing about it is it’s designed to be fully reusable. Right now, the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, only the first stages are reusable. This thing, the whole system is designed to be reusable. And in comparison, the other major launch vehicles coming online, ULA’s Vulcan, just had the first successful test flight just a few days ago. There’s nothing reusable on it. It’s fully expendable. They say one day they might jettison the main engines from the first stage and parachute them back or something [inaudible 00:48:45] plans for that. So it’ll never be cost competitive.

And then you look at the Europeans, their Ariane 6, new launch vehicle should be launching maybe sometime this year. Maybe it pushes into 2025. We’ll see. But again, no reusability built into that. The only real competitor I see on the horizon, is Blue Origin with their New Glenn launch vehicle, which has been in the works for quite a while. They say they might be ready for a first test launch by the end of this year, and that rocket is supposed to have a reusable first stage. So we’ll wait and see if they finally roll something out. It’s worth noting that Blue Origin has actually been around longer than SpaceX. They have not yet put anything into orbit though. So it’s a big head scratcher what-

Roman Schweizer:

That’s a good stat. That is a good stat. I was going to ask you about some of those other guys in launch, and it is just amazing what SpaceX has been able to do, continue to do. I think it was third time was the charm for Falcon. Not to suggest that… They still have a long way to go on Starship. As you did say, we got Vulcan out of ULA. Obviously the government is trying to keep this a competitive on the heavy launch missions, but it just seems like SpaceX is going away with it. What do you think? What are the hurdles here? Really is it-

Todd Harrison:

It’s an interesting one. That if you just look at the numbers, you would say, SpaceX is clearly becoming the monopoly launch provider, but are they doing anything to secure that monopoly or extend that monopoly that’s anti competitive? I don’t see it. Even to the extent of, yes, SpaceX has got a huge advantage in launch. They’re getting into SATCOM with Starlink, they’re using their own launch vehicle, so they are building on that vertically integrated advantage. But when OneWeb lost their access to space, they were planning to launch satellites on Russian launch vehicles, and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they could not launch those anymore. And SpaceX said, sure, I’ll launch your satellites. So they’re launching the competitor satellites.

The same thing has happened with Amazon and their Kuiper satellites. They are direct competitor to SpaceX, but they were ready to launch. They contracted literally with every launch vehicle other than SpaceX. None of them were available yet. So they finally went to SpaceX and said, “Can you launch us?” And SpaceX said, “Sure.” So now they’ve moved contracts over to SpaceX.

So SpaceX had the opportunity to do something anti competitive to leverage their monopoly in launch to secure monopoly in SATCOM. They didn’t do it though. So you got to give them credit that they’re just out competing on the merits. But from a national security perspective, it is military policy, stated policy that we want to have at least two independent launch providers. That’s why they structure the launch contracts for the medium and heavy lift launches through the national security space launch contract in SSL. That’s why they structured it so that there are two awards and a guaranteed minimum. And that’s what is keeping ULA in the market, quite frankly. And that will continue. And then looking at the next iteration of the launch contract, they actually want to bring three launch providers on the contract. They only really need to, by policy, only need to maintain two, but that does open the door for potentially Blue Origin to work their way in there and eventually out compete ULA on the US military launch contracts.

Roman Schweizer:

I know the Wall Street Journal did have a unsubstantiated report potentially about a number of folks being in the bidding on ULA, of which Blue Origin was referenced as one of them. Obviously for a guy like Jeff Bezos, who’s writing a billion dollar check a year to keep Blue Origin running, this buys you right into really, what I would call the traditional space launch guy or the folks that have long heritage with NASA and DoD. Would you think something like that is likely? Is that just a way to jumpstart to finally get some of the… Not only credibility, but technical know-how and everything that they would really use to make Blue Origin that key second guy?

Todd Harrison:

It’s not been much of a secret for a long time that Boeing and Lockheed have wanted to divest from ULA. So I think the first successful launch of Vulcan gives them that opportunity. They have been shopping and around and pretty much everyone expected no decision would be made until after the first successful launch. Now that’s happened. So maybe we’ll see something start to move in the market. I would say, on the one hand, it would make a lot of sense for Blue Origin to buy them because it does give Blue Origin immediate access to U.S. government contracts. There is value in buying a company just to have its contracts.

Also, there’s a lot of good synergy because ULA’s Vulcan rocket, the main engine for the first stage, they buy it from Blue Origin. It’s the same main engine that’s used on the New Glenn, the BE-4. So there’s synergy there. So basically, day one, you have a family of launch vehicles with a lot of overlap, and New Glenn would be significantly larger in payload capacity than Vulcan. So its synergy not really overlap so much.

I’ll say that there’s some downside too. The downside is, Blue Origin would be buying a lot of legacy infrastructure that ULA has inherited over the years from Boeing and Lockheed and all their previous launch ventures. They would also be buying, how to say it politely, a legacy workforce as well. That is not what Blue Origin has been trying to build. So they would have to figure out how to navigate those things. And of course, integrating company culture. But on the bright side, ULA has recent experience actually getting a new launch vehicle from design out to flight, successful flight. Blue Origin doesn’t have that experience, and so it could be beneficial to them to bring in some of that legacy experience, if you will.

Roman Schweizer:

Sure. I don’t want to end it on a total downer, but NASA announced Artemis is, I guess, going to be delayed, and they’ve got, I don’t want to say challenges, but there’ve been challenges with SLS the whole time. What’s your thought there on the Artemis Moon missions and where that goes?

Todd Harrison:

I don’t know that this is really bad news more than it’s just the public news catching up to the private news. When the Trump administration came out with the original goal of returning humans to the moon with a landing in 2025, pretty much everyone, including NASA, knew that that was an aggressively unrealistic timeline. Now, there’s good reason to go with an aggressive timeline in something like this, because whatever you set the date to be, it’s going to end up slipping. So start people at an earlier date, push them hard, and that will get the program moving faster in the initial stages, get contracts awarded, and it did. It’s just that the work takes a little longer. And so the missions are extending out. It’s not a huge surprise. They’re having technical difficulties with the Orion capsule, and you got to get that right before you put humans on it. And the first human flight with that capsule will be Artemis II. So that has slipped. All that mission is going to do is basically loop around the moon and come back to Earth with astronauts on board.

It’s the Artemis III mission that’s even more complicated. That’s where they’re actually going to send that Orion capsule out. They’re going to dock with a landing system provided by SpaceX, land on the moon, come back up, dock with the capsule, bring the crew back to Earth. Way more complicated. That has slipped now out to 2027. It would not surprise me if it slips again. One of the critical enablers of that Artemis III mission is SpaceX, and that lander is the upper stage of the Starship that they’re trying to test now.

So what I would say is from a DC policy perspective, NASA and the Biden administration, through the National Space Council, they really need to be riding herd on the FAA to get these launch licenses approved more quickly. Not jeopardizing safety in the launch range or anything like that, but if there’s things they can do to work weekends, to speed up the process, they need to be doing that because the Artemis program is critically dependent on SpaceX making a lot of progress on Starship in the next year or two.

Roman Schweizer:

Right. And then maybe there’s even an outside chance that Starship, Elon pushes it, and maybe that becomes the vehicle for the entire Artemis series. You know he’s going to try to do that if he can.

Todd Harrison:

I don’t think it’s likely he could do that for Artemis III but for future Artemis missions down the road, I think that’s entirely an open possibility, simply because the architecture NASA’s planning to use right now, it launches the Orion capsule on an SLS rocket and the recurring cost of those rockets right now, are something like 4 billion. It’s just ridiculously expensive. Starship will be a fraction of that. And so, longer term, it probably makes sense for NASA to switch. But the other factor too, is SpaceX does not have a lock on the lunar lander that NASA, because Congress forced them to, NASA has awarded a separate lunar lander contract to Blue Origin, a team led by Blue Origin. So there’ll be another lander option that’s coming in the pipeline as well.

Roman Schweizer:

Todd, this is great. We’re going to bring it to a close here and no space conversation would be complete, I know, I might get you into trouble here with some listeners, but are you a Star Trek guy or a Star Wars guy?

Todd Harrison:

I’m more of a Star Wars guy, I have to admit. But right now, I’m an avid watcher of For All Mankind, the HBO series.

Roman Schweizer:

Okay, here you go.

Todd Harrison:

I highly recommend it. It’s a lot of fun.

Roman Schweizer:

Awesome, Todd, so great to see you. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it. And thanks everyone for tuning in.


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