Pentagon wants commercial 'space reserve' to support military satellites in orbit

various satellites in space are connected by blue lines that also connect to vessels on the sea below
An illustration of Northrop Grumman's Tranche 1 Transport Layer (T1TL) mesh satellite communications network. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)

The United States Department of Defense is developing a plan to use the ever-growing American commercial space industry for national security purposes.

The plan, known as the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, or CASR, would allow the U.S. Space Force to use the capabilities of the commercial space sector through "pre-negotiated contractual agreements which would be activated in times of crisis or conflict," according to the service's "Commercial Space Strategy" document, which was released in April 2024

Such a plan would combine military, commercial and civil satellites operated by the United States and its allies into one "hybrid space architecture," as the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Unit refers to it.

CASR just moved closer to becoming a reality. Just this week, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee released a draft of its policy language for the fiscal year 2025 National Defense Authorization Act (the laws that allocate military spending) that signals its approval for the plan, according to Breaking Defense. The House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee oversees nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and national security space programs.

Related: US Space Force wants private companies to help it counter 'emerging threats' in space

The subcommittee's approval directs the Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall to conduct a study on how commercial insurance might be able to protect the "contractors providing support services" to the U.S. government under the CASR plan. 

Generally speaking, that means Congress wants to know who foots the bill if an adversarial nation were to disable or destroy private satellites that had been commandeered or used by Space Force during a conflict.

CASR has its roots in the Air Force's Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Established in 1951, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet allows the Pentagon to partner with commercial air carriers to boost capacity if ever needed during a national defense emergency. 

The additional capacity and capabilities from the commercial sector is something for which Space Force leadership has been signaling a need for some time. In April, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force, stressed that need during his keynote speech at the Space Foundation's annual Space Symposium. 

"Throughout our nation's history, military success has hinged on support from commercial industry," Saltzman said, adding that "cooperation among industry leaders and allies has proven particularly effective in challenging Russia's efforts in Ukraine."

Saltzman was referring to the use of SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation throughout Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Starlink has been used widely by Ukraine's military and government to provide vital communications capabilities after much of the nation's existing infrastructure was destroyed.

And Russia noticed. Speaking about the use of Starlink in Ukraine, a Russian delegation to the United Nations said in September 2022 that due to the capabilities they provide to military forces, private satellites could become a "legitimate target" for its military in the event of a conflict.

"At the very least," the Russian delegation said, "this provocative use of civilian satellites is questionable under the Outer Space Treaty, which provides for the exclusively peaceful use of outer space, and must be strongly condemned by the international community."

The Pentagon's Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve plan will ultimately have to be approved by Congress and signed off on by the president, along with the rest of the FY 2025 NDAA, before it becomes law. 

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Brett Tingley
Managing Editor,

Brett is curious about emerging aerospace technologies, alternative launch concepts, military space developments and uncrewed aircraft systems. Brett's work has appeared on Scientific American, The War Zone, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett enjoys skywatching throughout the dark skies of the Appalachian mountains.