What Putin’s War With Ukraine Teaches Us About Space Resilience

When the world is warned for weeks that an attack is imminent, as it was with Ukraine, there isn’t much more that can be done to prepare. Both Putin and most in NATO countries projected that Ukraine’s national government would be removed and replaced in a matter of days. Since the invasion began, the Ukrainians have inspired the world with a winning strategy deeply rooted in a culture of resilience. A cultural pivot to resilience, even knowing how to make Molotov cocktails to resist an invasion, has enabled a fierce resistance against a technically and numerically superior enemy. After only a few months, the diplomatic worry is shifting away from Ukraine’s likely victory towards how Putin will accept a loss – illustrative of what deeply-rooted resilience in culture can do, even on a shoestring budget.

Similarly, resilience is ultimately what will win the imminent first space war. The Biden administration’s continued prioritization of our country’s space capabilities has ensured a healthy emphasis on robust budgets; however, only a Space Force culture shaped by rewarding resourcefulness, realistic contingency planning, integrated coalition building, and joint exercises can be truly resilient.

Putin has shown how destructive despots can be to everyone in the interconnected world we live in. Very soon, we will be forced to address space aggression from these despots with the technology and resources we have on hand today, and not with the tech we hope to have eight years from now (which is still the average time to deploy traditional space systems).

General Raymond, the Space Force Chief, announced recently that resilience is at the center of President Biden’s new budget. Resilience planning in the new space race must include new hybrid space architectures, of course, but even more important than the physical systems is the culture of the Guardians, civil servants, and their industry partners conceiving, building, and operating these satellites. We must learn from the Ukrainian people that after courage, resilience through resourcefulness and preparation is the key to success even against a numerically superior enemy. The Space Force should take heed of their history making zeal and emulate the behaviors to ensure safety for the United States.

Whether it is to surge or reconstitute our space capability, our ability to do so with agility is essential, as the ongoing war must remind us. The traditional way, typically requiring a decade or longer to plan, program, legislate, acquire, and launch a single satellite will no longer cut it. Resilience tomorrow comes not just by building better, more plentiful satellites and ground systems, it derives from doing what’s needed now.

A country with partnerships already in place that leverage the scale of its own commercial tech industry will be able to surge when it needs to. Commercial space companies like Maxar, BlackSky, and Planet with their Earth imaging constellations already on orbit have been able to explain to the world in real time the war crimes Putin is committing and counter his propaganda.

Similarly, when Russia made the political decision to stop the launch of another country’s satellites, even after already delivered to the launch pad, a country can become immobilized. A culture of resiliency, often seen in rapid growth early-stage companies, is exactly what’s needed. Influential leaders like former Defense Secretary Ash Carter are coming out of retirement, adamant that our current satellite launch infrastructure is inadequate. To build a culture of resilience, we must properly identify and reward individuals who take the initiative to prepare for a surge or reconstitution of space capabilities, not the ones who watch them and then stand up to take the credit when it’s done.

While its entertaining to the public, we need to forget about “Boots on the moon!” military planning, and move away from the unsubstantial posturing and preening we see at industry symposiums hosted at fancy resorts. Attempting to reenact a Gilded Age for Space will make it even more likely that the gathering threats the Pentagon and intelligence leaders are warning us about will erupt into a space conflict we have neither the plans nor culture to address.

With a resilient culture and mindset, wargames will again be useful exercises in testing the mettle of America’s space ninjas, not just an excuse to travel to Paris to produce after-action reports used to justify more spending. Only then will our Guardians be able to prepare for other missions that could be useful in a surge or reconstitution crisis.

The alliance of this century’s despots and their desire to destroy the asymmetric military and economic advantages that our space capability gives us are real – we need a sound Guardian force and industrial base that understands this concept deeply and stands ready to respond.

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