The Space Force Can’t Win Without Rapid-Launch Satellites

May 4, 2023 Topic: Space Force Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Space ForceSatellitesSpaceAIAnti-satellite Weapons

The Space Force Can’t Win Without Rapid-Launch Satellites

The ability to respond quickly to changes in space will be critical in future conflicts.

What happens when the U.S. military needs emergency access to satellites? With China and Russia having developed anti-satellite weapons and other nations placing their own equipment into space, being able to replace or add to U.S. capabilities in space quickly is critical to national security. That requires us to keep a number of satellites in reserve and possess the capabilities to get them into orbit. The Space Force’s ability to reassert U.S. satellite capacities in a pinch could mean the difference between intercepting threats to the homeland and not even knowing they’re on the horizon.

Other branches of the military have already shown how reserve fleets can save lives. Two programs, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and the National Defense Reserve Fleet, provide the Air Force and the Navy the ability to use civilian aircraft and boats for military purposes in a time of extreme need. That is how we could fly civilians out of Kabul, Afghanistan, using planes from a reserve fleet so the military could secure airports and evacuate its own personnel. 

The U.S. Space Force has been putting together its own reserve fleet of commercial satellites for use when the Department of Defense’s satellite capabilities fall short in a time of crisis. Ensuring that data collected from satellites continues to flow uninterrupted to the U.S. military is essential. Dubbed the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, it is still in its early stages of development and only focused on keeping satellites in orbit—not keeping them on the ground. We need reserves on the ground in case a satellite is disabled or damaged while in orbit. The U.S. Space Development Agency has purchased and intends to launch hundreds of low-cost, low-orbiting satellites in the future. This ensures that should adversaries want to disrupt U.S. space capabilities, they will need to destroy hundreds of small satellites instead of disabling just one. The Space Force’s ability to seamlessly shift its stream of satellite-provided information will make certain that the U.S. military has the most up-to-date information available to inform their decisionmaking. 

Unlike boats and airplanes, satellites must usually be launched from fixed positions on Earth that are easily identifiable to adversaries. That makes quick replacement of satellites in orbit risky, as sites like Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Space Force Base, and the Kennedy Space Center are all well-known sites that could have their payloads of satellites intercepted in a conflict. That is why the United States must have the capability to launch a satellite back into orbit from anywhere. The Air Force Research Lab is currently testing the RS1 and GS0 systems that would provide small teams of personnel the ability to launch payloads into space from a small concrete pad in under twenty-four hours. Currently, these systems are being evaluated on the amount of time it takes to train operators and ensure system sustainability but could provide military personnel with space-launch capabilities in the coming decades. 

Equipping personnel on the ground with rapid-response space launch capacities would add even more depth to reserve space systems in the CASR. These “operationally responsive space” capabilities would allow satellites and other equipment weighing less than 1,200 kilograms into orbit to either augment or replace defunct or disabled satellites with a minimal amount of large infrastructure on the ground needed to facilitate a launch. Launching objects from existing aircraft into low-Earth orbit is also within the realm of possibility: the U.S. Space Force’s TacRL-2 mission successfully placed an object in low-Earth orbit from a launch aboard an L-1011 aircraft traveling above the Pacific Ocean. As of last year, the Space Force gave three weeks’ notice to prepare for a launch, but with innovations like the RS1 and GS0 systems, the Space Force could shrink its launch time even further to just twenty-four hours. Being able to replace important capabilities in space from anywhere on the ground within a day would be a boon for overall deterrence and would add a massive amount of depth to U.S. space capabilities. The U.S. military should be prioritizing this technology to back up its satellite fleet.   

This rapid-launch technology is still nascent, and the United States needs to invest in developing it faster. A more recent test of an RS1 rocket on Alaska’s Kodiak Island failed due to engine malfunctions but was able to be on the launchpad ready at short notice. One solution could be leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to conduct pre- and post-launch checkups of their systems could cut safety and inspection times down dramatically. Researchers at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science were in the process of developing an AI for rockets that can perform safety checks, but tests remain ongoing.

Whether these solutions solve the problem or not, the ability for the United States to respond quickly to changes in space will be critical in future conflicts.

Roy Mathews is an Innovation Fellow at Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College and a former Fulbright Fellow. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Boston Herald.

Image: Shutterstock.