Anyone who’s played the board game “Battleship” is familiar with the notion of operational resilience. Gameplay is simple: Each player has a fleet of five plastic ships that they place secretly on a grid representing the ocean. Players then take turns guessing the coordinates of their opponent’s ships. Correct guesses are “hits” marked with red pegs placed in holes on each vessel. When all its holes are filled with red pegs, a ship is sunk.
It’s not enough to sink a single ship. To win the game, you’ve got to decimate your adversary’s entire fleet. Therein lies the essence of operational resilience. Conventional wisdom is that a player with five ships left can withstand more hits than a player with two. The larger your fleet, the longer you can stay in the game. But that strategy doesn’t always win the game. The player with the smaller, less visible ships – like the smaller Patrol Boat or Submarine pieces – can hide and emerge to wreak havoc on the larger, more numerous Carriers and Battleships.
Because nations are likely to wage future wars with space assets, operational resilience is as relevant in space as it is at sea – or land, or air. The advent of proliferated low Earth orbit (pLEO) constellations is therefore an exciting proposition. With hundreds or even thousands of smallsats at its beck and call, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) can easily and affordably build a strategic advantage over its adversaries in space.
Or so suggests a new generation of space startups. Established companies like Boeing have a broader view. When it comes to building a resilient space order of battle, the numbers advantage that’s so vital in “Battleship” is only one piece of a large and complicated resiliency puzzle, according to Kay Sears, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space, Intelligence and Weapons Systems. Proliferated constellations make big targets like those large “Battleship” fleets, and those can be ripe for attack.
“There’s a love-fest going on with pLEO, but it’s pretty easy to poke a hole in that. Literally—it’s pretty easy to poke a hole in a LEO constellation,” Sears said. “You don’t have to take down the entire constellation; all you have to do is create window of time for our adversary to deploy. So, to think that a proliferated LEO constellation alone can deliver a resilient outcome is flawed.”
Simply put: Resilience in space isn’t just about one type constellation or type of asset or even one orbit. It is about how multiple systems work together across different assets, capabilities and orbits that creates a step change for our adversaries. Working in close collaboration with its customers and partners, Boeing is helping the United States build a resilient space order of battle that’s based on modernizing space systems instead of merely proliferating them.
Cosmic conflicts: Fighting and winning in space
To understand how vital it is to have a resilient space order of battle, imagine a future conflict in which adversaries attack infrastructure in space as readily as they attack infrastructure on land or at sea. For civilians, everything from GPS, phone and internet connectivity, and even ATM and credit card usage could be in jeopardy. For warfighters in the line of fire, the stakes are much greater, as satellites support mission-critical navigation, situational awareness, communications, intelligence gathering and missile detection, among other things.
“The role of space has changed dramatically in just the last few years,” explained Sears, who said the United States is transitioning from past conflicts like the war in Afghanistan—when it used space assets as “top cover” for missiles, ground troops, tanks and warplanes—to future conflicts with near-peer adversaries who will move space from the background of conflicts to the foreground. “The challenge for the U.S. Space Force now is to not just use space as a supporting domain for other weapons systems, but to actually fight and win in space –a massively expanded role with increasing criticality. That’s why space resilience and the order of battle in space is so important.”
Boeing helps its customers ensure a resilient space order of battle by focusing on three primary strategic objectives, Sears said: flexibility, agility and affordability. By investing in all three, it believes it can deliver more capabilities to U.S. warfighters, faster and in response to a greater number of threats.
Flexibility: Exploiting medium Earth orbit and software-driven satellites
Space is not a monolith—and neither is the space threat landscape. Having the flexibility to operate across multiple space domains is therefore essential to the U.S. military.
“Through deep analysis and an understanding of the warfighting outcomes we’re trying to achieve, we have come to the realization along with the national defense community that there is no single bullet when it comes to the space order of battle,” Sears said.
No single bullet—and no single orbit. “We need depth in mission capability, and that depth comes through different orbits,” Sears continued.
At an altitude of 500 to 1,200 kilometers, LEO is easy to reach and offers low latency. But coverage is expensive. At an altitude of 36,000 kilometers, geosynchronous orbit (GEO) offers high coverage but higher latency. In between is medium Earth orbit (MEO), whose altitude of 5,000 to 20,000 kilometers is the sweet spot for a resilient space order of battle, Boeing believes.
“When you’re in LEO, you need thousands of satellites to have complete Earth coverage. When you’re in MEO, you can cover the globe with six satellites, not thousands. And yet, the latency is just about the same,” explained Michelle Parker, vice president of Space Mission Systems at Boeing Defense, Space & Security. Parker oversees Boeing’s satellite and ground systems business, including commercial and government satellites and the company’s subsidiary Millennium Space Systems.
MEO is both cost-effective and mission-smart, according to Parker, who noted that smaller MEO constellations are easier to operate and maintain than larger LEO constellations. And because they still contain multiple albeit fewer satellites, you still benefit from redundancy in the event that something happens to one of them.
There are security advantages, too. “They’re more complex to interfere with than, say, a GEO system that’s stationary, where you can just point a jammer at it and have your way,” said Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International (BSSI), which oversees Boeing’s global commercial satellite business. “So, while MEO doesn’t replace everything LEO can do, and it doesn’t replace everything GEO can do, it has a blend of strengths that make it an important part of the space architecture.”
Exploiting the advantages of MEO are six Boeing-built O3b mPOWER satellites launched between December 2022 and November 2023 on behalf of satellite communications provider SES. Designed to provide fiber-like broadband connectivity to government and enterprise users in remote regions around the globe, the constellation features Boeing’s 702X software-driven architecture, the centerpiece of which is Boeing’s integrated payload array—an all-digital payload providing more than 5,000 steerable beams per satellite.
“With analog payloads, you define the coverage areas that you need before you get up in orbit,” Parker said. “With the 702X’s integrated payload array, that’s definable and programmable on orbit.”
Not only can you define coverage areas in orbit, but you also can change them. “From a battlefield management perspective, you can focus on the warfighter that you need to serve. You can have it one place at one point, and then you can move that coverage,” continued Parker, who said the technology can even work in an automated fashion to reallocate service in case of an attack. “If you get a jammer on you, you can reconfigure your beam and work around the jammer. That’s a super simple example of what that kind of versatility can provide.”
The integrated payload array is just the first step toward building what ultimately will be a full-blown networked space environment, predicted Reid, who said the U.S. military wants the same networked capabilities in space that civilians already enjoy on the ground.
“Everything we do in our homes is all networked together. Imagine the frustration if your television, your cellphone, your partner’s cellphone and the alarm in your house were on completely different networks,” explained Reid, who noted that consumer-grade electronic devices work with internet routers and other wireless access points to automatically parse data, power and bandwidth in ways that are seamless and invisible to the user. Software-driven satellites like those in the O3b mPOWER constellation can operate in the same fashion, acting like “network switches in the sky” to autonomously and intelligently direct space communications traffic based on user and application priority. “As you drive around town with your cellphone, you’re connecting to lots of different cell towers, and all those different cell towers are essentially little access-point routers that you’re talking to. We’re extending that into space.”
A networked environment in space could yield significant benefits for troops on the ground, whose effectiveness and responsiveness suffer when they have to expend time and energy navigating outdated communications equipment and protocols. “The less the warfighter has to think about how their information is getting to them or how they’re getting their information out, the more focused they can be on mission success,” Reid said.
Agility: Speed as strategic advantage
The complexity of space operations and the dynamic nature of modern warfare demand not only flexibility, but also agility. In other words: speed.
“Things used to be designed to last 15 years in orbit, but that whole dynamic is changing,” observed Parker, who said the advent of rapid launch services makes it possible to quickly expand and refresh satellite constellations with new capabilities, and to just as quickly reconstitute them if an asset malfunctions, fails or is taken out by an adversary.
Consider the ammunition shortage that befell the United States in the wake of Russia’s war with Ukraine: When an unexpected conflict led to a sudden surge in demand, the U.S. industrial base lacked the infrastructure it needed to quickly scale up production. To prevent a similar scenario in future space-based conflicts, Boeing is building and perfecting its rapid production capabilities.
At the heart of its efforts is Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems, which recently completed the small satellite VICTUS NOX for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command. Although a typical production timeline can range from two to four years, Millennium delivered VICTUS NOX—Latin for “conquer the night”—in just eight months by leveraging vertical integration. Because Millennium makes 80% of needed components in-house, it was able to take a standard product off its assembly line and modify it with mission-specific features in the last mile of production. Instead of weeks or months, it subsequently completed the satellite’s activation and launch phases in fewer than 58 hours and 24 hours, respectively, and achieved operational readiness just 37 hours after launch, which was 11 hours ahead of its 48-hour goal.
“We’re really proud of VICTUS NOX. It has changed the conversation on how we can deliver capability rapidly and allow that dynamic response or call-up,” noted Parker, who said Millennium is co-located with parent company Boeing and constantly cross-pollinating with it. “Millennium does things differently and that has challenged the thinking in our mainline factory, as well.”
Millennium’s “rapid prototyping” approach to satellite design and development is one way to achieve increased speed, but rapidly producing and fielding space assets isn’t enough. To achieve a resilient space order of battle, those assets must be able to yield a decision advantage once they’re in orbit. With that in mind, integrated architecture is another strategic priority for Boeing, which recently launched a dedicated ground systems group to grow its ground systems business in support of command-and-control and data-processing functions.
“As you think about multi-satellite constellations, the ground becomes more and more important,” Parker said. “The system is only as strong as its weakest link. If you understand the whole system from ground to satellite and from satellite to ground, and you design the system architecture from nose to toes, it sets you up to be able to make some very strategic decisions … that could affect speed of response.”
When it comes to speed-enabled space resilience, Boeing has at least one more ace up its sleeve: Boeing Phantom Works, the advanced research, development and prototyping division of Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
“We specialize in first-touch, cutting-edge technology that others have either not attempted or not succeeded with in the past,” explained Boeing Phantom Works Executive Director Gil “Waco” Griffin, who said Phantom Works matures emerging technologies to a point of feasibility so that customers and industry partners can take the baton and find an accelerated pathway to practical use cases. “We’re going to build up a technology to the greatest extent possible, which gives programs of record in other business units a heck of a jumping-off point. Us doing all of this early legwork typically saves them multiple years on what they’re trying to accomplish.”
Affordability: Mining efficiency for effectiveness
No matter how quickly it onboards new capabilities, a space order of battle can only be resilient if it’s also economically sustainable. Affordability is therefore the final piece of the puzzle.
“Affordability comes from innovation,” Sears said. “I would use our integrated payload array as the best example. We took thousands of hand-built components that were individual parts and pieces, and we designed it into a board that’s the size of a flat-screen television built with immense amounts of automation. Those are the kinds of innovations that drive affordability in terms of both cost and schedule, and we continue to pursue those through digital engineering; digital design; and investments in electronics, process and manufacturing modernization.”
Another lever Boeing pulls in pursuit of affordability is efficiency, a recent example of which is the organizational alignment of its disparate satellite programs under a single umbrella—Parker’s Space Mission Systems group.
“It allows us to take an integrated look at the satellite business, where our customers are and where they want to take their capabilities,” Parker explained. “We can then look across our whole portfolio to ask: How can we best serve the customer?”
Crucial to Boeing’s portfolio-level approach is the strategic and synergistic intersection of government and commercial lines of business.
“We’re building commercial systems and we’re building military systems. We’re one of the only manufacturers that’s still serving both of those markets,” Sears said. “The advantage of that is, we’re able to leverage across a larger market and pass those savings on to our customers.”
Despite different requirements, commercial and government users often have the same needs and objectives. Therefore, customers can share not only costs, but also capabilities. “In some cases, commercial providers drive the innovation, which we can then use with the military. In other cases, the military drives the innovation, and we can offer that back to our commercial customers,” Sears continued.
Boeing’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite system is one example of a government capability derived from a commercial platform. Another is the aforementioned integrated payload array, which was developed for SES’s O3b mPOWER constellation but can be easily tailored for use on government platforms.
“Having a standard set of product lines that are the same for commercial and government systems … is economically advantageous for us,” Reid said. “Rather than designing something new every time, we have a set of proven capabilities that we know how to build whether our commercial or government customers need that capability.”
Before they can share them across sectors, customers must recognize what capabilities they need. Analysis is therefore a fundamental enabler of affordability, according to Sears, who said Boeing’s business approach starts with customer conversations and consultations—many of which begin at Boeing’s St. Louis-based Virtual Warfare Center, a 70,000-square-foot facility where military experts and operators participate in real-time simulated battle scenarios that inform Boeing’s research-and-development activities.
“We have really good data on threats, we have really good operational data and we can simulate some future capabilities,” Sears said. “When you put all that together, you get a very outcome-based, data-driven analysis that says: Here’s where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck, here’s the type of resilience you’re going to create and here’s how long the mission could last given the threat environment and the threat capabilities that we know exist. That way, you don’t go spend money in places that don’t make sense. You can test … before you invest.”
‘The right approach for the right problem’
There’s no doubt about it: Americans are living in a pLEO era. Sooner rather than later, however, they might also be living in an era of high-stakes space conflict. To ensure a strategic advantage when that time comes, the U.S. military must act now to ensure a resilient space order of battle that includes proliferated smallsats but is not limited to them.
Based on more than 60 years of satellite-building experience, Boeing has determined that the key to success is optionality, the recipe for which is equal parts flexibility, agility and affordability.
“It’s about choosing the right thing for the right mission, and having the ability to do that,” Parker concluded. “Our portfolio ranges from GEO satellites like our ViaSat and WGS satellites to MEO satellites like O3b all the way down to the small satellites of Millennium … To be able to cover that range and mix and match with the different payload capabilities that we bring allows us to pick the right approach for the right problem at the right time, which is a real advantage.”