For decades, the United States has launched large, complex and expensive satellites into orbit to better support the war fighting endeavor. These space-based assets were designed to serve their purpose and live long operational lifespans — but for the most part, were never developed with the idea of space being a contested theater as it is rapidly evolving into today.
Large satellites with multiple functions represented the most logical approach to leveraging space for the benefit of ground-based warfare. At approximately 10,000 dollars per pound, the emphasis was always on getting the biggest bang out of each launch’s buck, and incorporating multiple functions on platforms destined for launch presented a cost savings advantage. However, today, with nations like China and Russia are rapidly developing offensive orbital and ground based weapons intended to disrupt America’s ability to rely on that satellite infrastructure, those large, multi-purpose and almost entirely undefended satellites that once represented cost savings are beginning to look like something else entirely: liabilities.
“When I first came into the space business, we built big satellites because it was expensive to get a launch vehicle,” she said. “You wanted to put as much as you could on that satellite because you wanted to get the most out of that launch,” said Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Air Force Materiel Command commander. “Now launch is cheaper, and we realize that these big, huge satellites are not easy to defend … and having multiple things on them made them very attractive as targets.”
Damaging or interfering with these large and expensive satellites isn’t all that difficult for near-peer adversaries. China has already made a practice of “shining” U.S. satellites in orbit with ground based lasers built for debris tracking. “Shining” doesn’t do any damage or even interfere with the satellite sensors, and is currently seen as a bit of an “I see you” gesture — but turning up the power on such a laser could be problematic for satellites in the future. Further, both Russia and China have experimented with platforms that are intended for removing debris from orbit, but could just as easily be used to de-orbit satellites as well.
“Right now, an adversary could actually be highly incentivized to take out one of our high-value satellites. They’re far away, attribution is tricky and the payoff for an adversary could be huge,” explained Steve Nixon, Stratolaunch’s vice president for strategic development.
Countering this threat would be among the chief priorities of the new space-based branch of the U.S. Military President Trump recently directed, but currently, it falls on the U.S. Air Force Space Command. There are a number of endeavors underway aimed at reducing America’s vulnerability to orbital attack, as well as reducing the military’s reliance on satellite connectivity in the battle spaces of the future. However, one of the most dramatic ways to offset the risks presented by an attack on these aging and defenseless platforms isn’t to defend them at all… but rather to replace them with smaller satellites that are more specialized in purpose as well as more difficult to engage.
In previous launch models, the U.S. government needed to pack as much satellite as they could into each rocket launch, forcing them to build large and elaborate platforms. Now, with commercial launches happening with increasing regularity, launch opportunities are increasing in direct relation to launch costs decreasing. This shift will allow new, smaller and more capable satellites to be launched into orbit to supplement existing platforms and replace them over time. In the short term, these quicker, lower cost launches could allow the U.S. to replace capabilities lost in an orbital attack quickly and efficiently, limiting the damaging effect of losing part of the satellite constellation war fighters rely on.
“If you can rapidly deploy a satellite, it’s not as much of a problem if a satellite gets jammed or even gets destroyed by an enemy,” said Bill Ostrove, space analyst for the Connecticut based consulting firm, Forecast International.
As America grows more aware of the glaring vulnerability above its head, an increased emphasis in orbital defense is sure to follow — but the most potent tool in the space defense apparatus may not be from the military at all. The reduced cost and dynamic launch capabilities provided by commercial space fairing companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance could make replacing damaged satellites easy enough that attacking individual assets in orbit may one day prove infeasible.
Featured image: Falcon Heavy Demo Mission | By Official SpaceX Photos, via Flickr