The concept of rapid movement to keep an enemy off-balance is as old as war itself. Known in military circles as “maneuver warfare,” this mode of fighting has occurred in every domain, from land to sea and air. It’s only a matter of time until this strategy enters a new domain – space – underscoring why satellites need greater agility and resiliency to defend themselves in the newest warfighting domain.
Speaking Aug. 10 at SmallSat 2022 on building resilient and secure constellations, I offered a historical warfare perspective and how we can enhance satellite survivability, and how government can ensure commercial satellites are more agile in today’s threat environment.
Lessons of History
In ancient Greece, Athens was dominant at sea while Sparta was superior at land warfare. To achieve advantage, Sparta dropped huge planks onto Athenian boats to bring the battle to them. During the Anglo-Spanish War between England and Spain, England relied on its faster sloops to maneuver around Spain’s larger, less mobile fleet to gain a strategic edge in maritime warfare.
During Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, U.S. forces leveraged satellites to pinpoint and destroy targets even in low-visibility conditions in the desert, a feat that resulted in decisive victories and fewer lost lives. The precision of American satellites also served as a wake-up call to the rest of the world that space was critical to future warfare.
Satellites continue to demonstrate how essential space is to today’s military missions, providing surveillance, situational awareness and communications to inform military movement and strategy, as evidenced by the real-time satellite feeds that tracked Russia’s troop movements during the invasion of Ukraine. That intelligence gave the much-smaller Ukrainian defense forces an advantage.
Despite their utility for connectivity and ISR, today’s Space Force satellites remain vulnerable to attack. They’re still built with a 1980s Cold War mentality – their overarching purpose was to provide space-derived information to the ground in a non-threatening space environment with minimal maneuverability. Those days are gone.
Going Beyond Space Debris
Satellites already must navigate debris fields caused by irresponsible handling of defunct satellites and other space junk. It’s well documented that China and Russia have developed offensive space weapons and capabilities for rendezvous and proximity operations. Two ASAT missile tests – one by Russia last November and the other from China in 2007 to destroy a defunct weather satellite – created significant debris in low Earth orbit. In fact, those two events accounted for nearly 40% of all high-risk conjunctions in space in the first four months of 2021, according to an analysis by LeoLabs.
The Answer: More Agile Satellites
Clearly, space is now a contested environment, with satellites crucial to American national security. As we see this type of warfare, we must change the way we’re building our satellites to make them more agile. One way could involve rolling up their solar arrays. National security customers are asking for this feature as it makes the satellite a smaller target while improving maneuverability.
Adding sensors, flexible satellite designs and AI capabilities may increase the cost of tomorrow’s more agile satellites, but the biggest hurdle may be that more regulatory action is required.
Government Can Speed Innovation
The government can incentivize satellite developers by requiring all future satellites to incorporate hardware for space situational awareness and maneuverability.
How fast we innovate depends on how efficiently we can deploy engineers with clearances to these advanced projects. Increasing the number of clearances awarded to firms with the most promising technology would accelerate our progress. The more engineers dedicated to these critical design efforts, the sooner we can introduce new capabilities on agile timelines.
Given what’s at stake in this new domain of modern warfare, the imperative for our industry to innovate faster has never been greater.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Dean Bellamy serves as executive vice president of National Security Space for Redwire, a leader in space infrastructure for the next-generation space economy. Prior to entering the private sector, Col. Bellamy was a career U.S. Air Force officer, who concluded his government career as chief of the Policy and Strategy Group in the National Reconnaissance Office.
This article originally appeared in the SpaceNews Show Daily published Aug. 10, 2022, during the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.