Top general says large constellations of satellites in low orbit could address key needs

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Gen. Paul Selva: Military forces in the field need “ubiquitous communications” and other capabilities that could be provided by large networks of satellites.

WASHINGTON — If the Space Development Agency can successfully design a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit to support defense activities, it would fill a longstanding military need, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said June 18.

Military forces in the field need “ubiquitous communications” and other capabilities that could be provided by large networks of satellites, Selva told reporters during a breakfast meeting.

Selva will be retiring next month after a four-year tour as the second-highest ranking U.S. military officer. One of the duties of the vice chairman is to run the Joint Requirements Oversight Council that vets all DoD acquisitions and ensures they satisfy the demands of military commanders.

The SDA will attempt to fill a key requirement for global communications and space-based services, Selva said. The agency has special authorities to speed up the procurement of new hardware but also has a responsibility to make sure the equipment fulfills specific military needs, he said. The SDA “does not go around the requirements process.”

SDA Director Fred Kennedy insists that the answer to the military’s needs for global reliable communications is a “proliferated LEO” constellation, which is Pentagon-speak for large numbers of small satellites in low Earth orbit.

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council has to ensure programs meet military requirements, Selva said, but the JROC does not dictate what DoD should buy. “We don’t have a requirement for proliferated LEO constellations,” Selva noted. “That’s not what the JROC does. What the JROC says is that we must have the capacity for all our units to communicate at a sufficient amount of bandwidth to receive the information they need to prosecute the mission they were assigned.”

Kennedy has proposed developing a proliferated LEO constellation using commercial hardware to connect the military’s ground, naval and air forces, and provide other services like positioning, navigation and timing. Selva said the JROC would like to see the SDA deliver on its promises. “Proliferated LEO opens up opportunities,” he said.

Selva said it remains to be seen if the SDA can take advantage of its rapid acquisition authorities to bring a LEO constellation to fruition. DoD has long had a need for modern space-based communications, but what was missing was a “process that lets us very quickly experiment and rule out those things that are not useful,” Selva said. That is the gap the SDA will try to fill.

“I don’t care where you put the authority,” he said. “Just make sure somebody has it and the person or organization that has it is responsible for the outcome,” Selva said. Whatever the SDA develops will be inherited by a military service. “A service will operate the constellation, not the SDA.”

The SDA will develop the architecture and hand it over, Selva said. “That service is going to deploy those satellites, whether it’s the Air Force or the Space Force , that chapter has yet to be written by the Congress.”

Selva recalled a recent conversation at the Pentagon when somebody mentioned that DoD has no expertise building proliferated LEO constellations. Selva pointed out that the military and the intelligence community during the Cold War built hundreds of low-altitude remote sensing satellites. “But we abandoned our capacity to do it because we developed a new more elegant technology that was huge expensive satellites that could do multiple tasks,” he said. These large satellites were put in high orbits to perform tasks that are “exorbitantly more complex than what we used to do from LEO, which was take pictures,” he said. “How many aerospace engineering are still around that still remember when we built satellites en masse? The answer is very few.”

While government engineers became adept at designing huge and complex satellites, the private sector is now leading the way in LEO. Because of companies like Planet, SpaceX and others, Selva said, “there will be an industrial process that will support building economy-size satellites not school bus satellites.”

For the SDA, the challenge is to make sure that whatever satellites are deployed are useful to forces in the field. “And do I have the apertures on my ships, planes, trucks, tanks to access that network?” said Selva. Without all that, LEO constellations are just interesting projects that don’t serve any real purpose, he said. “That’s the conversation that is ongoing.”

As Selva nears the end of his tenure, he said he has been reflecting on his legacy and on what lies ahead for his successor (Strategic Command’s Gen. John Hyten has been nominated to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs).

Taking advantage of commercial space technology for military purposes falls into a “big bin of work yet to be done,” he said. “Constellations are being launched by civilians, there are companies that can build satellites for one and a half million dollars, that can do fairly significant surveillance of the planet,” he said. The other piece is data analytics. “One of my hard questions to the technology world is: As this data become more ubiquitous, we have it and our potential competitors have it, how do we get an advantage? How do we understand faster, decide faster and act faster than an adversary that has the same information?”

Data collected by satellites is available to everyone, and other countries are advancing their artificial intelligence and analytics capabilities, he noted. “We’re not the only people trying to do this. That has implications for how we operate in space, how we defend the things we operate in space, and what we believe freedom of navigation looks like in space.”