The rapid pace of rocket launches from the eastern range is more than just a commercial space boon.
It means a greater capacity to defend America’s space architecture against aggressive adversaries developing space weapons, said the commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
“It’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind, even our bosses,” Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess told the Washington Examiner. “How can we keep this pace up, and how can we be even faster or [have] more launches?”
When Schiess first served at Cape Canaveral eight years ago, he saw just a dozen annual launches. In 2020, the Department of Defense’s eastern range is set to surpass 30 commercial and national security launches.
Even more launches are expected as the nation’s newest service, Space Force, stands up and needs to deploy additional assets into space.
Launch capacity has been enabled by the growth in commercial space, the commander said, including private companies such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and soon, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The first autonomous rocket service for satellites, Relativity Space, will also come online shortly.
“We believe that a strong commercial space launch business case helps national security space by ensuring that we have launched providers that have a good business model,” said Schiess.
As Space Force approaches its first birthday on Dec. 20, Schiess said Space Force Commander Gen. Jay Raymond will decide what he needs to protect national security. Space Command’s Gen. James Dickinson, who manages the war fighting aspect of space, will add additional requirements that will mean even more launches.
“There’ll be more national security space launches in the future that we’ll also need to be put onto the schedule,” the 45th Space Wing commander said. “It’s been a huge increase, and we’ve had to come up with innovative ways to be able to be better at that so that we can get that pace off.”
Air traffic along the eastern seaboard needs to be cleared, cruise ships need to be moved out of the area, there need to be precise weather conditions, and while the vast oceanfront base has some 26 launch pads, only four are currently operational.
Part of the reason why the Space Force will likely increase its launches soon is a defensive strategy to replace large, clunky satellites with numerous, smaller satellites. The so-called proliferated low Earth orbit constellations will consist of satellites that can be built and launched faster.
Brookings Institution national security scholar Frank Rose told the Washington Examiner that the success or failure of the Space Force will depend on its ability to assure resiliency in space.
“The ability to maintain our space systems in the midst of the threat from anti-satellite weapons,” he explained.
Earlier this year, Russia tested for the second time a space weapon capable of chasing a satellite and firing a projectile. In 2007, China showed it can shoot down a satellite.
Rose said a robust launch capacity is a step in the right direction.
“Our ability to enhance the resiliency to a certain extent depends on our ability to quickly reconstitute things,” said Rose. “Space launch capability is key to our ability to effectively operate in space in the context of a contested environment.”
Schiess said the capability, developed in concert with the private sector, is consistent with Raymond’s goals for the force.
“Gen. Raymond and our leaders are trying to build an agile and responsive service that can meet the needs of the United States,” he said.
“We just need to be postured to be able to do those launches when they come down and they get scheduled,” the 28-year Air Force veteran asserted. “I think there’s no limit to what the Space Force could do.”