May 18, 2022
Viva la space: Why the commercial small satellite revolution matters for the US government
On May 5, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice launched a report, generously supported by Thales, and hosted a virtual event on “The National Security Implications of Small Satellites.”
The event included opening remarks by Atlantic Council president and chief executive officer Frederick Kempe and Thales North America chief executive officer Alan Pellegrini, along with a panel of experts and officials from across the space community. Featured on the panel were author of the report and Forward Defense nonresident senior fellow Nicholas Eftimiades; Space Development Agency policy chief and legislative affairs director Paula Trimble; space policy and warfighter expert at the University of Leicester Dr. Bleddyn Bowen; and chief executive officer of COMSPOC Paul Graziani. Moderated by SpaceNews senior staff writer Sandra Erwin, the panel articulated the importance of harnessing small-satellite developments to guarantee US competitive edge in the future of warfare.
What’s the big deal with small satellites?
Today’s small satellites provide the same–if not more–capabilities than traditionally large satellites at a fraction of the cost and size. Small satellites provide for critical US government functions and facilitate the everyday lives of Americans (from communications to remote sensing). Small satellites enhance space situational awareness (SSA), and large constellations of small satellites foster redundancy and resilience. While traditionally large space assets provided one “big juicy target” ripe for attack, small satellite constellations make it difficult for adversaries to target and shut down a system with just one strike. These constellations also provide back-ups in case of inadvertent collisions knocking out communications.
Can we sustain the influx of small satellites?
As more and more companies launch small satellites into space, the congestion and likelihood of collusion in low-Earth orbit (LEO) increases. According to Dr. Bowen, little research has been done to determine the actual orbital capacities of LEO and, furthermore, he raised concern that a general trend toward disposable satellites will only increase the amount of space debris clogging up LEO. To account for the influx of satellites in space, experts advocate for the establishment of a space traffic management (STM) system to prevent collusions. However, while STM continues to be conceptualized, it is not yet implemented. Graziani argues that part of the problem is that STM implies that there will be a unilateral manger–with the connotation being that the United States will lead. Instead of STM, Graziani, proposes the term space traffic coordination to promote multilateralism.
Where does China fit in?
According to Eftimiades, the United States will lose space superiority–continued safe and secure access to the space domain–to China in ten years at its current rate. Currently, the US Space Force maintains superior global SSA as it maintains over a hundred SSA agreements with allies and partners. While China’s current SSA is comparatively weaker to the United States, Eftimiades believes this balance of power will soon shift. Over sixty countries are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Digital Silk Road program. If half of the world is depending on China for space capabilities and information, then this could inhibit US counterspace actions. The capabilities of small satellites could push back the timeline of Chinese space superiority to ensure Americans and allies continued access to critical space assets like communication and early missile warning satellites.
How are small satellites faring during Russia’s war in Ukraine?
In March 2022, Elon Musk provided Starlink satellite terminals to aid Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, which have since been recognized as a game-changer for Ukraine’s offensive. Graziani agrees that small satellites have revolutionized the conflict, asserting that, because Ukraine is facing an existential threat, Ukraine was pressed to effectively adopt small satellites technology to survive. Conversely, while the United States is faced with multitude threats, Graziani doubts they will be enough to drive the US military to widely adopt small satellites.
However, Dr. Bowen disagrees that the use of small satellites in Ukraine is groundbreaking. Rather, he argues that it is simply a continuation of militaries integrating space assets into warfighting, a common practice since Operation Desert Storm. The current war illustrates an interesting example: While the conflict has seen an abundance of open-source intelligence, and Russian military locations and assets are commonly broadcasted to the public, the same cannot be said of Ukrainian locations and assets. States can control the flow of information–even with private companies–and Dr. Bowen concludes that there must be information blocking in Russia’s war.
How does the current acquisition process help or hinder the United States?
To maintain US space superiority, the US government must acquire small satellites. However, Graziani asserts that the traditional acquisition systems reinforce failure. While companies are paid for a finished product in the commercial sector, defense contractors are not paid until they deliver a government solution. This outdated model can incentivize defense contractors to purposefully stall innovation as they receive a steady paycheck, whereas companies spend their internal research and development (IRAD) funds without the guarantee of a profit. Until this mindset changes, the commercial sector innovation will always exceed that of the US government.
To speed up the acquisition process, the Space Development Agency (SDA) has made their acquisition process more flexible. According to Trimble, SDA is prioritizing speed and staying on schedule over cost and performance in the procurement process. To address past complaints of private space companies, SDA now clearly outlines their material needs and corresponding time frame from development to launch. This timeline enables the Department of Defense (DoD) to get critical assets into orbit and stimulates the commercial space industry.
The DoD has a mutually beneficial relationship with space industry, as the DoD gets its hands on the latest technology to fill vulnerability gaps and the companies make a profit. One way that SDA is streamlining the acquisition process is with its warfighter council. The council works with practitioners to understand what their near-term needs are so that SDA can being the research and development process early. The acquisition process is critical for the DoD to create a resilient warfighting capability in space.
You can watch “The national security implications of small satellites” here and you can read the corresponding report here. For more information about Forward Defense, visit the website here and subscribe for more.
Madison Littlepage is a Young Global Professional for Forward Defense in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Read the report
Explore Forward Defense
Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.