WASHINGTON — In order to better keep tabs on adversaries, the U.S. military needs satellites that can actively maneuver in orbit, the deputy commander of U.S. Space Command said July 6.

“The way we’ve been doing space operations since the dawn of the space age, we’ve been doing it wrong,” Lt. Gen. John Shaw said at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. 

Shaw specifically alluded to the military’s “neighborhood watch” satellites — known as GSSAP (Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program) — used to monitor the geostationary belt, where the Pentagon deploys its most valuable space assets. 

GSSAPs were built to last up to seven years but have a limited fuel supply, and maneuvers must be carefully planned to minimize fuel consumption. 

Shaw has raised the issue at several public appearances in recent months. At the Mitchell forum, he once again insisted that the current approach of deploying satellites in designated orbits and minimizing maneuvers does not work in the age of great power competition.

He said Space Command is advocating for a new approach he described as “dynamic space operations,” in contrast to the current practice of minimizing maneuvers for fear of depleting a satellite’s fuel supply. 

“This could be the most fundamental doctrinal shift that we’re probably going to see in the next four to five years,” he said. 

Need maneuverable platforms

Perhaps not all satellites have to be highly maneuverable, Shaw said. But surveillance and reconnaissance platforms need to be more mobile in order to better monitor adversaries’ activities. 

“We launch a platform into orbit, and we tend to leave it right in that orbit,” Shaw said. “But we’re coming to the realization that that is not going to be sufficient anymore.”

Shaw said he recently spent time with GSSAP operators at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. Their feedback reinforced the need for change in how these assets are developed and deployed, he added.

“GSSAP’s sole purpose is to move around the geosynchronous belt and to look at other platforms … And if there’s something that’s behaving suspiciously, we’ll look at that,” Shaw said. 

U.S. military satellites are operated to ensure they stay in service for many years or decades. “And so we are actually largely constrained by what we can do with those platforms,” he said. “I had a chance to sit down with operators a few weeks ago and spend a good amount of time understanding how they approach it.”

They have to operate with significant constraints, said Shaw. “We can’t have those constraints in the future. And so we’re trying to articulate a requirement to the Space Force that we need to be able to have sustained space maneuver for those platforms.”

Potential solutions

It will be up to the Space Force to come up with solutions to this problem, Shaw said. Among the options being considered is to build satellites with refueling ports so they can take advantage of commercial refueling services

“If I could refuel GSSAP satellites once a month, we would be operating them completely differently than we do now. They’d be operating at maximum trust levels and delta V levels that are unlike anything we’re doing right now,” Shaw said.

Another possible solution is to rely on low-cost small satellites that would be replaced more frequently. “I’ll get another one in two weeks because I’m going to fly the heck out of it. And it’s going to empty that gas tank in a hurry.”

The goal is to “achieve surprise and initiative against an adversary in ways that I can’t today,” Shaw added. 

The Space Force is working to address these needs, he said. 

“We’ve asked for a demo by 2026 on how we would do sustained space maneuvers for a given platform.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...