The space domain is not something the average citizen thinks about regularly. Apart from rocket launches, the idea of space is mostly out-of-sight and out-of-mind. However, daily life would be drastically different without the impact of space and satellites on everyday life. Communications, broadcasts, and navigation all benefit from space-based technology across the public, private, financial and entertainment – these all need the protection that resiliency and redundancy initiatives offer.
Something similar can be said for the military, which utilizes satellite and space to give the warfighter a significant, tactical edge. Satellites are used for position, navigation and timing (PNT), communications, and empowering today’s network-enabled warfighter with the connectivity that today’s advanced weapons systems and platforms require. Unfortunately, satellite constellations are the targets of potential threats and are in need of increased protection.
This sentiment was shared by Lt. Gen. J.T. Thompson of the Space and Missile Systems Center at a recent Space Power Forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute. During his introductory remarks, Lt. Gen. Thompson highlighted that there is an urgent need to think protectively about the constellations of satellites that serve public and private interests as our near-peer adversaries continue to develop ways in which to deny access to satellites. As Lt. Gen. Thompson explained, “There is a lot of publicly available data about the development of counter-space capabilities by our nation’s adversaries.”
The U.S. is invested and committed to, “…protecting the global commons of space.” But keeping space available for all nations who would use it for peaceful purposes is becoming increasingly difficult. Lt. Gen. Thompson warned that, “There is a strong emphasis on weaponizing space by a couple of our adversaries.”
It’s been well-reported that adversaries such as China and Russia are developing capabilities intended to interfere with U.S. and allied satellites. There are lunar concerns, threats of kinetic, cyber and directed energy attacks, and of course, jamming interference risks. Lt. Gen. Thompson explained the immediacy of such threats when he said, “These are not distant threats. They are happening now. They are evolving and adapting their capabilities at a rapid pace.”
How does the U.S. counter these threats and stay vigilant as they evolve? Lt. Gen. Thompson and the Space and Missile Systems Center are taking a proactive approach, “This is really pure competition. It’s not just military competition. It’s also economic, diplomatic, and information. We have to decide, as a nation, if we want to win it.”
If the U.S. military is going to win this competition, it’s not going to do it alone. Commercial satellite operators will have to play a role.
Commercial leads in innovation and delivers resiliency
At the heart of this competition is innovation – an area where the commercial satellite industry now leads. Today’s COMSATCOM industry is building more satellites, launching them more frequently and innovating much quicker than the government. This has led to exciting new advancements in high throughput satellites (HTS) and even the emergence of satellite constellations at Non-Geostationary Orbits, closer to Earth. These new constellations at Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) are capable of delivering fiber-like bandwidth and throughputs.
But the use of commercial satellite capacity doesn’t just deliver new innovations to the military – it also improves resiliency.
By disaggregating military satellite communications from just MILSATCOM satellites – such as the WGS constellation – and utilizing a mix of MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM, the military can bake redundancy into their satellite networks. This can also make it harder for adversaries to target and deny satellite capabilities.
There are ten MILSATCOM satellites in the WGS constellation today and approximately 150 commercial satellites in orbit. By increasing the ecosystem of satellites that could potentially be carrying military communications, the DoD can make adversary targeting calculus nearly impossible.
This will encourage rapid innovation and get increased capability to ensure the warfighter can maintain a tactical edge.
While space may no longer be the benign “global commons” it once was, there are ways to ensure satellite resiliency even in today’s austere space domain. But it’s only possible through increased partnership between the military and commercial satellite providers.
To hear more from Lt. Gen. Thompson you can view the Space Power Forum in its entirety.