Small Satellite Constellations Needed for U.S. ISR Architecture

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Should the Pentagon invest in small satellite constellations for the United States to remain a military superpower? The Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington think tank, believes it should. In a recent report, the think tank warns that the spread of advanced technologies has allowed state competitors to challenge U.S. military advantages in naval and air warfare, particularly in long-range targeting and missile defense. In a conflict against a peer competitor (e.g., Russia, China), the study said, the U.S. military will be at a disadvantage without a “resilient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] architecture.”

One problem is that current space and airborne sensors do not provide sufficient around-the-clock coverage, CNAS analysts argued. Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites can spend a few hours over a target area. Drones can spend several days above a target. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) can provide continuous coverage of designated target areas. But there are not enough GEO satellites to fully offset LEO satellites and airborne ISR limitations.

Small Satellite Constellations

The answer is to develop lower-cost constellations. “Small satellites should make up the core of the future LEO ISR satellite network,” CNAS suggested. “These satellites range in size from .25 to 400 pounds and cost as little as $150,000.” Large military satellites by comparison cost hundreds of millions of dollars per unit.

Small satellites can be produced and launched in larger numbers. While big-ticket military satellites are far more capable, cheaper alternatives would make it possible to produce ISR constellations made up of thousands of small satellites, said the report. “Within each constellation, sets of small satellites would be assigned to perform each of the tasks previously done by single, expensive satellites. The sheer number of satellites would also allow each constellation to observe a far larger target set than previously feasible.”

The redundancy built into these constellations would complicate adversary attempts to take them down. “The number of satellites adversaries would be forced to engage to cripple U.S. ISR would be orders of magnitude greater than it is today,” according to the study.

This is not the first time the small satellite topic has come up. In earlier discussions at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, military experts and space industry representatives suggested the U.S. invest in the technology to launch swarms of small satellites into orbit as an insurance policy for larger military satellites in the event of a conflict in space. The current network of large U.S. military and intelligence satellites provides an advantage over other countries, but “was really built in an uncontested environment,” Steve Nixon, vice president for strategic development for the satellite firm Stratolaunch, told SpaceNews. “It’s no longer resilient to threats and probably cannot operate through a contested military environment.”

The CNAS report suggested some caution, because the Pentagon will need to carefully estimate the cost of future constellations of small satellites. While the per-unit price of small satellites is considerably lower, there are additional expenses to be considered such as new terrestrial communications stations and intra-constellation data-sharing systems. “That said, the operational benefits afforded by a shift toward more resilient small-satellite constellations may make even a modest increase in the cost of the U.S. military space architecture worth the added expense.”

Decide for yourself. For more information, check out:

Building the Future Force: Guaranteeing American Leadership in a Contested Environment

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Ryan Lahti is the managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations being published in late 2018. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Black Marble – City Lights, Flickr)

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