Smallsats still need to prove their military utility, Air Force space official says
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department isn’t willing to send small satellites into operational roles, at least not yet, a Pentagon official said Oct. 20.
Despite the “tremendous innovation going on,” small satellites still don’t “meet sufficient capability to argue it is the cost-effective, militarily important, way to meet the requirements,” said David Hardy, the U.S. Air Force’s associate deputy under secretary for space.
“This is from a guy who really loves small satellites,” Hardy told the annual Hosted Payload and Smallsat Summit here.
Smallsats, whether they weigh a few kilograms or half a metric ton, are generally cheaper to build and cheaper to launch than larger satellites.
But one big factor that stands in the way of the military jumping fully on board is the fact that smaller satellites often lack self-defense capabilities such as electronic countermeasures and robust propulsion systems useful in warding off a deliberate attack — an issue that’s of growing concern as space increasingly becomes a contested environment, Hardy said.
“We need to make sure that we’re building an overall DoD and military architecture that is both mission capable and resilient,” he said.
Another roadblock is that military operations are placing large demands on space capabilities, whether communications, navigation and positioning, or surveillance.
“Yes, it is true that there’s been a tremendous advance in the ability to make the satellite bus smaller and make the sensors smaller,” Hardy said. “However, this has been accompanied by an increase in the requirements we need from our space capabilities.”
Taken together, small satellites’ vulnerability and smaller payload make the Pentagon cautious about using smallsats for much of anything beyond science and technology demonstrations.
“So, what does this mean for the Air Force and the DoD? When it comes to small satellites, I think the answer is still uncertain,” Hardy said. “There’s much potential that needs to be watched from our perspective … We’re just cautious to try to figure out that balance.”
In the past, balancing size and capability has caused problems in the private sector as well. Despite the lighter weight and cheaper launch cost, small satellites often haven’t been able to carry a large enough payload to justify the return on investment, Hardy noted.
“Over my career I’ve seen several comings of smallsats,” he said. “There have been several times in which people have boldly stated that we’re in a new era where smallsats have fundamentally changed the way we do space. Today, that really hasn’t happened.”
“There are niche areas in which small satellites have been able to find a significant place both in terms of providing some military capabilities and some commercial,” Hardy continued. “But they have been historically burdened by what ends up to be a weak business case.”
Yet this time the technology might finally have caught up with the idea, and small satellites might be here to stay, Hardy added. He said he’s never seen such a “sudden acceleration in terms of what we can do and are doing in space.”
Smallsat proponents say DoD’s concerns about resilience could be addressed by constellations of redundant small satellites that could keep operating even if one or two were knocked out.
In terms of capabilities, large constellations of small Earth-imaging satellites offer frequent revisits to compensate for their lower-resolution imagery. The National Geospatial-Imaging Agency recognized this in September when it awarded a $20 million contract to Planet, a San Francisco startup developing a constellation of small imaging satellites. The contract gives the NGA access to Planet’s global imagery archive, updated every 15 days.
While the military is “grappling with the way forward” when it comes to small satellites, it’s also trying to decide if there’s a place for hosted payloads.
The Air Force has a special contracting authority, known as Hosted Payload Solutions, designed to make it easier to pay satellite operators to host military payloads aboard their commercial satellites. But the military has yet to make use of the authority. So far only NASA has used it, hiring three commercial satellite builders in 2014 to design accommodations for an atmospheric sensor.
“Historically, the level of performance we require from our satellites has driven us to build our own,” Hardy said. “If we require all the capabilities required by a satellite, cost analysis shows it’s cheaper for us to buy it from ourselves than it is to buy it from industry or have them do it for us.”
He noted that there was a military “cultural element” in the resistance to hosted payloads as well.
“We at the DoD space community like to have control of our own assets,” he said. “We are most comfortable when we own and run our assets. I quite frankly think that’s an outmoded concept, and that if we move to a much more proliferated and wider utilization space, that we will move away from that.”
But Al Tadros, chair of the Hosted Payload Alliance, said the military is missing a big opportunity by not taking better advantage of the Hosted Payload Solutions special contracting authority.
“We feel this is a completely underutilized method for access to the commercial space industry,” he said. “The commercial satellite industry launches at a pace of about 20 GEO-satellites per year. That’s twice a month we are going to GEO. That’s more capacity than the U.S. government in total has access to.”
The abundance of launches by companies provides the military with “operational flexibility for having access to a large number of commercial satellites,” Tadros said.
He pointed to the Air Force’s planned 2018 launch of Space Test Program-3, a grab-bag mission featuring an experimental satellite hosting a nuclear-blast-dection payload, a laser-communications demo for NASA, and six smaller payloads yet to be identified.
Tadros said the government shouldn’t have to pile multiple capabilities onto the same satellite.
“This is not a sustained approach to hosting experiments,” he said. “Many of these experiments could be used on commercial satellites…the government could take benefit of that supply chain.”