Smaller satellites in bigger constellations could accelerate the restructuring of both the space industry and international security relationships.


Amy Butler of Aviation Week reports today that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is crafting a strategy to leverage what Director Robert Cardillo calls a pending “explosion” of commercially-available imagery. As Patrick Tucker writes this morning on Defense One, a great deal of the NGA’s imagery already comes from commercial sources, and why not? We all know what can be accomplished today with just Google Maps. But following a petition from DigitalGlobe last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is about to relax restrictions on what resolution is publicly releasable. That in turn will release pent-up demand for “military-grade satellite images,” altering not just the structure of industry, but the dynamics of bureaucratic power in international security.

More than just NOAA and NGA have come aboard the concept. Recently retired Space Commander General William Shelton clearly signaled his enthusiasm with that widely-read white paper on Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures. The US, he argued, now has a “national consensus” that it needs large numbers of smaller, less costly—even if individually less capable—satellites. Working in concert, as coordinated constellations, they should undertake the work of bigger birds, but in “a self-healing network that would be able to weather the early stages of a space war.” Yet there is more than value here than survivability in orbital combat. The new boss at Space Command, General John Hyten, thinks that this approach to procurement would also tamp down the need “to spend billions of dollars in non-recurring engineering” every time the US needs another asset.
The economic implications of this shift are huge, even taken narrowly within the defense industry. Supply of data will continue to rise to meet commercial demand, prompting great investments for further technical advances on smaller architectures. That’s great for the new entrants, and not so encouraging for the ‘big space’ business. But the political implications may be yet more interesting. Consider how that commercially-available but military-grade imagery could change military planning in smaller countries. When what’s available on Google is good enough, why call the Americans, and horse-trade for their exquisite capabilities? Indeed, when Google is good enough, what can super-empowered individuals accomplish, for good or otherwise? That sea change is aways off, but defense ministries around the world can start thinking about their options today as better services become available. Higher resolution imagery may be disaggregating space, democratizing destruction, and spreading security, all at once.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.