Operating Under Constant Surveillance

By Sean Cate and Jesse Sloman

Less than a decade ago, only the most advanced commercial satellites—some of which weighed more than three tons and cost almost half a billion dollars apiece—were able to provide panchromatic images at a half-meter resolution. 4 Today, microsatellites can achieve a sub–one meter panchromatic resolution for less than $50 million, including launch expenses. 5 Miniature-satellite companies save money by using widely available, standardized parts and by accepting higher system-failure rates than typical satellite operators. Rather than launch a few very expensive and robust platforms, miniature-satellite companies put many cheap systems in orbit to provide backup for any satellite failures.

The bulk of commercial miniaturized satellite innovation has occurred in high-resolution Earth imaging and broadband communications. One pioneering company, Terra Bella (formerly Skybox), launched a microsatellite capable of imaging the Earth in sub-one-meter panchromatic resolution at the end of 2013 and another similar satellite in 2014. 6 Terra Bella plans to have a constellation of 13 microsatellites orbiting by the end of this year that can image nearly any spot on Earth twice per day and can even capture 90-second high-definition video clips. 7

Planet Labs, another leader in miniaturized satellites, put more than 90 satellites into orbit over the course of 2014 and the first half of 2015. 8 They plan to image the entire planet every day in three- to five-meter resolution and provide same-day images to customers beginning in the third quarter of 2016. 9 Similarly, the startup BlackSky Global expects its constellation to achieve revisit rates of 40 to 70 times per day between 55 degrees north and south latitude, where roughly 90 percent of the world’s population lives. 10

Imaging by small satellites is not restricted to the visual spectrum. Large commercial satellite companies are beginning to conduct synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and infrared (IR) imaging. Miniature satellites would also be capable of IR imaging, and small or microsatellites in low Earth orbit may be able to carry out SAR imaging using separate transmit and receive satellites communicating with each other. 11 U.S. and foreign companies also are using micro and nanosatellites to receive ship Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) transmissions. 12 Correlating AIS information with satellite intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data will allow observers to key in on ships not broadcasting AIS, even in the midst of a cluttered ocean.

Companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb are expanding their miniaturized-satellite capabilities beyond remote sensing to high data-rate communications. OneWeb, for example, has raised $500 million in support of its goal of fielding approximately 650 small satellites by the end of 2019. 13 Each satellite in the OneWeb constellation would provide 6 gigabits per second at a unit cost of less than $500,000. 14 By comparison, the Department of Defense’s Wideband Global Satellite Communications constellation nominally supplies up to 3.6 gigabits per-second throughput from each satellite at a unit cost of over $560 million. 15

Surface Competition

If current trends in miniature-satellite proliferation continue unabated, within the next decade it will likely be possible to employ commercial technology to image the entire Pacific Ocean several times a day with high levels of detail. In such an environment, rosy predictions about the U.S. military’s ability to “attack the kill-chain” and hinder a reconnaissance-strike complex are wishful thinking. The electronic-warfare and strict emissions-control techniques the United States is counting on to reduce the effectiveness of radar and electronic-collection satellites will be ineffective against large constellations of electro-optical satellites. U.S. and adversary naval surface platforms will find themselves operating in an arena in which both sides can see the other well before they are within the range of each other’s weapons.

In this new world of ubiquitous overhead ISR, surface combatants will need to use time and distance in new ways to create operational opportunities. By distributing highly lethal surface ships to complicate an adversary’s targeting problem, the Navy can shift from a strategy that hinges on remaining undetected to one that uses the adversary’s battlefield knowledge against it. This creates an overwhelming targeting problem while forcing the enemy to spread its forces thin.

To illustrate the power of distribution, imagine U.S. surface forces as arrayed in a semicircle off an adversary’s coast, outside the effective range of most land-based antiship threats. As U.S. forces operate farther from the shore, not only does the distance the enemy has to travel in order to engage those forces increase, but the perimeter of the semicircle increases, asymmetrically magnifying the time-distance problem. Sustaining a long-term defensive posture while quickly reacting to developments along a vast perimeter at extended distances creates a challenging problem for any adversary and makes its air, surface, and even undersea forces acutely vulnerable.

Operating from these greater distances, U.S. fleets will require very long-range weapons and a robust off-board targeting capability. Miniature satellites will be critical to the latter requirement, allowing individual ships to access near-real-time ISR information. A large number of small ISR satellites will provide thorough coverage of theaters of operation, giving U.S. forces access to needed imagery without having to task specialized low-density, high-demand intelligence satellites. Coupling large amounts of available communications bandwidth with advanced computer learning algorithms to assist with the processing of imagery can decrease significantly the time for a satellite image to be transmitted, processed, analyzed, and assessed.

In the case of a conflict with China, the U.S. surface fleet could remain outside the First Island Chain to act as a cordon/blocking force. Aircraft carriers could then be positioned behind distributed groups of cruisers and destroyers, allowing the carriers to use their air wings to shield the surface combatants from hostile air and sea attacks. U.S. submarines, with their enduring stealth advantage, could operate closer to hostile shores and become the primary antisurface and deep-strike naval platforms in those highly contested waters.

U.S. surface forces employing long-range missiles cued by overhead ISR would be key. These ships would attack land-based targets and destroy People’s Liberation Army Navy surface vessels attempting to project power from under the shelter of Chinese shore-based antiship systems. Miniature satellites coupled with long-range weapons will also enable surface ships to strike time-sensitive targets, such as missile transporter erector launchers, with stand-off weaponry.

Space Competition

In addition to changing the nature of surface combat, miniaturized satellites will change how strategists conceive of the satellite/anti-satellite competition. The ease with which miniature satellites can be launched will shift the focus of space conflict from orbit to the ground, as both sides focus on targeting their opponent’s ground-based reconstitution and anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities rather than the relatively disposable satellites themselves.

State-of-the-art ASAT weapons are evolving beyond kinetic interceptors (that create large clouds of dangerous space debris) to air- or surface-based laser systems (that create debris-less kills at low costs per shot). Killing and replenishing satellites will be cheap, likely preventing either side from gaining a lasting advantage once the conflict reaches orbit. Battles for superiority in space will be fought on the surface, where each side will seek to disrupt the other’s counter-space and space-reconstitution forces and infrastructure.

The Navy will be well positioned to take on both counter-space and space-reconstitution missions. The service is moving toward equipping large surface combatants with high-energy lasers. These weapons, combined with high-power radar systems, such as the SPY series, could allow surface ships to target small satellites that have little to no on-orbit maneuvering capabilities. The Navy’s ability to launch into any orbital inclination from the sea could be essential to reconstituting our space forces. A ship-based space-launch system would reduce our country’s dependence on a small number of fixed space-launch facilities.

The Navy’s Way Forward

Taking advantage of the miniature-satellite revolution will require the DOD to heavily fund commercial miniature-satellite companies while retaining an inventory of its own miniature satellites for space reconstitution. Private companies have the agility to compete in a fast-growing, dynamic new aerospace sector in a way that the Pentagon, with its layers of bureaucracy and arduous procurement processes, does not. Relying heavily on commercial satellites imposes some risk. The U.S. government would need to maintain an agreement to guarantee access during a contingency even if it puts commercial satellites at risk. If a company hosting a great number of critical satellites were to go out of business, the Pentagon would need to safeguard the continued viability of that company’s constellation either by taking over the platforms directly or facilitating a sale to a suitable competitor.

The DOD could also choose to field its own miniature-satellite constellations. All the factors that make small satellites cheap—disposability, off-the-shelf components, and sufficient but not exquisite capabilities—are at odds with the DOD’s approach to procurement. The Pentagon, for instance, with its penchant for high reliability and redundancy, might struggle to accept Planet Labs’ 20 percent failure rate. 16 Resisting the seemingly insurmountable temptation to succumb to requirements creep—where different actors add specific niche capabilities to a program—is not likely. The DOD’s standard processes would erode much of the basis of miniature-satellite affordability, resulting in much higher program costs.

Maximizing the U.S. Navy’s benefit from the proliferation of commercial small satellites will require investment in complementary capabilities, including long-range penetrating carrier aviation and fast, long-range survivable weapons as well as camouflage concealment and deception. CCD creates uncertainty in enemy observations and assessments, decreasing an opponent’s ability to conduct target identification and characterization. Sophisticated decoys—possibly coupled with advanced autonomous technology—hold great promise for creating a large amount of clutter to further overwhelm our enemies with data.

CCD efforts can go both ways. To counter adversary CCD efforts, the United States will need to work with miniature-satellite companies to develop advanced machine-learning algorithms that can sort through the massive amounts of constellation-generated data to locate the targets of interest to U.S. forces.

Navies have used the emptiness of the ocean to elude and surprise their foes for centuries. In 1798, the French Mediterranean fleet led Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson on a three-month chase by capitalizing on the thinness of British reconnaissance resources and the slow speed of 18th-century communications. More than 100 years later, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sneaked six aircraft carriers to within striking distance of the Hawaiian coast to attack Pearl Harbor.

Miniature satellites upend that paradigm. The United States currently stands at the forefront of miniature-satellite development, with a considerable lead in the production and operation of these new systems. The U.S. Navy must embrace the advantages of miniature-satellite employment while adopting new weapons, tactics, and a distributed fleet architecture to prevail in future conflicts while under constant surveillance at sea.



1. Dominic DePasquale and A. C. Charania, “Nano/Microsatellite Launch Demand Assessment 2011” SpaceWorks Commercial , 22 November 2011, www.spaceworksforecast.com/docs/SpaceWorks_Nano_Microsatellite_Market_As... .

2. “Nanosats Are Go!” The Economist , 7 June 2014, www.economist.com/news/technology-quarterly/21603240-small-satellites-ta... .

3. “UCS Satellite Database,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 1 January 2016, www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/space-weapons/satellite-database#.VtHNQmf... .

4. Greg Avery, “DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 Satellite Launched into Orbit,” Denver Business Journal , 13 August 2014, www.bizjournals.com/denver/blog/boosters_bits/2014/08/digitalglobes-worl... .

5. Tekla S. Perry, “Start-up Profile: Skybox Imaging,” IEEE Spectrum , 1 May 2013, http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/innovation/startup-profile-skybox-imaging .

6. “SkySat 1, 2,” Gunter’s Space Page, http://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/skysat-1.htm .

7. “SkySat 3, 15,” Gunter’s Space Page, http://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/skysat-3.htm .

8. Planet Labs 2015 Annual Report, submitted to the Federal Communications Commission on 29 June 2015, https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-334593A1.doc

9. “Data,” Planet Labs, 27 February2016, www.planet.com/data/ .

10. “A new way to look at the world,” BlackSky, 27 February 2016, http://www.blacksky.com/ .

11. “Finns Developing SAR Radar Microsatellites,” European Association of Remote Sensing Companies, 3 December 3 2015, http://earsc.org/news/finns-developing-sar-radar-microsatellites . C. I. Underwood and O. S. Mitchell, “A Novel Method for Achieving SAR Imaging with a Pair of Micro-Satellites by Means of Bi-Static Configuration,” 16th Annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, 27 February 2016, http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1914&context=s... .

12. See, for example, exactEarth, www.exactEarth.com/technology/satellite-ais , and ORBCOMM, www.orbcomm.com/en/networks/satellite-ais .

13. Aman Shah and Irene Klotz, “UPDATE 2-OneWeb Sets Record Launch Plan after $500 mln Funding,” Reuters, 25 June 2015, www.reuters.com/article/bharti-oneweb-idUSL3N0ZB4GH20150625 .

14. Peter B. de Selding, “Competition to Build OneWeb Constellation Draws 2 U.S., 3 European Companies,” SpaceNews , 19 March 2015, http://spacenews.com/competition-to-build-oneweb-constellation-draws-2-u... .

15. “Wideband Global SATCOM,” Boeing, www.boeing.com/assets/pdf/defensespace/space/bss/factsheets/702/wgs/docs... . Justin Ray, “Seventh Satellite in Air Force’s WGS Series Launched,” Spaceflight Now , 24 July 2015, http://spaceflightnow.com/2015/07/24/recap-story-7th-satellite-in-air-fo... .

16. Jean Kumagai, “9 Earth-Imaging Start-ups to Watch,” IEEE Spectrum , 28 March 2014, http://spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/satellites/9-Earthimaging-startups-to... .


Mr. Cate is an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) where he specializes in future warfare capabilities.

Mr. Sloman, a Marine reservist, is a research assistant at CSBA where he specializes in amphibious operations.

 

 
 

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