For generations, military satellites have been massive, and massively expensive. In recent years, however, an increasing consensus among defense leaders and military analysts has emerged that a new satellite architecture is needed.

Rather than rely on a few big satellites, they say, critical military functions — such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or positioning, navigation and timing — could come from swarms of smaller satellites. To ease that transition, they suggest the Department of Defense should work more closely with industry.

National security experts said a rising generation of space threats make the shift an imperative.

“This is an urgent and pressing need,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation.

“The threat environment is becoming more complex and more worrisome. Russia is in the process of reconstituting several anti-satellite capabilities that had gone fallow at the end of the Cold War and China is developing its own capabilities. They are both pretty clearly aimed at undermining U.S. space capabilities.”

Rise of the small sats

The rise of small satellites, those typically weighing less than 1,100 pounds, opens a window of opportunity for certain military missions.

“A lot of things the military does would benefit from using a larger number of very small satellites rather than a small number of very large satellites that are too expensive to fail and that become big juicy targets for adversaries,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow and director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

The military is pursuing several initiatives, with an eye toward deploying smaller satellites that would be simultaneously less expensive and more defensible. This includes pilot programs with nanosatellites, weighing less than 20 pounds and that can operate as a single entity or in formation.

For example, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s Nanosatellite Program (SNaP) aims to deploy a constellation of such devices for military communications.

“SNaP is a technology demonstration with the goal of showing the military utility nanosatellites can provide to the disadvantaged user,” Thomas E. Webber, director of SMDC’s Technical Center Space and Strategic Systems Directorate, said in an Army press release. With the aim of transporting data beyond the line of sight, “SNaP is a natural fit for the command since we are the Army proponent for space and also the SATCOM provider.”

The Navy meanwhile has been experimenting with nanosatellites to extend ultra-high frequency communications into the polar regions.

“This is a force multiplier,” Capt. Chris DeSena, program manager for the Navy Communications Satellite Program Office at PEO Space Systems, said in a Navy release.

“We are delivering war-fighting capability that naval forces and their partners need to compete, deter and win. The Arctic portion of maritime domain is becoming more active and important, and [nano-satellites] help ensure we have advantages in any challenges we might face there.”

At the same time, the Air Force, which manages a majority of the Defense Department’s military satellites, is investing in new ground control systems that could support future small-sat deployments.

The Air Force announced in January 2019 it was awarding integrator SAIC a $655 million contract for satellite ground systems’ engineering, development, integration and sustainment. The move comes as part of a wider effort to develop “enterprise” ground systems that could support multiple satellites on a range of space missions.

That move toward interoperability is in line with efforts to launch fleets of smaller, more diverse satellites.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Dex Landreth performs communication checks for the WGS-10 launch from inside the Delta Operations Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Van Ha/Air Force)
U.S. Air Force Maj. Dex Landreth performs communication checks for the WGS-10 launch from inside the Delta Operations Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Van Ha/Air Force)

New partnerships

The Defense Department is looking to industry for the ability to inexpensively deploy and operate the next generation of satellites.

“Commercial partnership and collaboration is vitally important to [Air Force Space Command’s] ability to succeed in our mission and, more importantly, move forward in a manner that outpaces our strategic competitors,” Gen. John W. Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, told the House Armed Services strategic force subcommittee in March 2018.

Budget analysts endorsed this approach.

A Government Accountability Office report released in July 2018 found that “using commercial satellites to host government sensors or communications packages … may be one way DoD can achieve on-orbit capability faster and more affordably.”

The report cited Pentagon estimates that the use of commercially hosted payloads could save the Pentagon several hundred million dollars. Broadband communication is one area that some say may be ripe for commercial engagement.

We have a base in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. How do we get data to and from that place? It really makes sense for the military to look at purchasing commercial bandwidth, because that is something that is already widely available from a commercial standpoint,” Weeden said.

Representatives from industry say today’s satellite providers could easily and cost-effectively pivot to be even more supportive of the military mission.

“An architecture for the future in ISR, communication, PNT or any function — it doesn’t need to be exclusively military or exclusively commercial. It needs to be an integrated architecture that leverages the best of breed,” said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of government strategy and policy at Inmarsat Government.

Rather than wholly own and operate satellites as it has in the past, the military could look to a hybrid business model.

“We want to leverage existing assets until the end of their lives, while at the same time achieving interoperability with a diversity of sources,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

“The military could partner with the commercial industrial base to build faster, cheaper and more responsive solutions.”

A satellite architecture comprised of various-sized constellations, supported by an effective and efficient military-industry partnership, sounds promising. However, some in the national security community who envision such a future and also point to several hurdles.

Sticking points

The military has long warned that a plethora of tiny satellites will likely introduce new complexity in the management of space assets.

“We expect to be tracking 250,000 to 500,000 objects down to the size of my fist and that’s a significant problem. A lot of people are wondering whether we’ll ever be able to find a launch corridor to launch something into when you actually can see what’s up there,” said Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command and a former head of Air Force Space Command, speaking at the Small Satellite Conference in 2015.

The military may need to rethink key elements of space operations in order to utilize small satellites effectively.

Because they will fly in lower orbits, small satellites won’t need as much power (that’s a plus) but they’ll also have reduced visibility. “You are constantly moving over the Earth, so you have to have enough satellites so at least one is always in view of the user,” Harrison said.

Others question whether the military will be able to overcome its own inertia in order to shift the satellite paradigm.

“The way the U.S. military and especially the U.S. Air Force has done satellite acquisitions in the past is very much in a big-project mold. They create a whole constellation to deliver a specific capability, along with a specialized ground control system,” Weeden said.

“Breaking that mindset is really difficult.”

This shift in perspective will be a prerequisite if the military is going to embrace a new satellite infrastructure.

“The focus has always been on creating these ‘Battlestar Galactica’ satellites, with these massive missions,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

“There is military culture that says: ‘My job is to fly this big satellite or to acquire new big satellites,’ and the military doesn’t change readily.”

In order to reposition, the military may especially need to develop a fresh perspective on the economics of satellite infrastructure.

“They need to break out of the sunk-cost evaluation, this fallacy that says: We have already spent so much money, we should not do any future investing in the same way,” said Cowen-Hirsch.

“It’s true there is a very significant investment in the large architectures and you don’t want to turn your back on that. But that shouldn’t prevent you from making future investments.”

In any case, some say, cost ought not be prime consideration here. While a single small satellite is cheaper than a big one, a fleet of nano-satellites might not reduce the overall mission cost, and that might be acceptable to military leaders.

“It’s not about being cheaper; it’s about being more resilient,” Harrison said.

“Adversaries want to disrupt, degrade and destroy our space capabilities, and when you have just three or four satellites covering the whole, that’s a vulnerability.”