Why the Next Generation of Satellites Needs to Be More Survivable

Why the Next Generation of Satellites Needs to Be More Survivable

Networks of satellites will need to be hardened and dispersed to protect against enemy attacks that could degrade space operations.

The Air Force’s focus on space operations is centered on designing weapons needed to destroy incoming enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles, building new generations of lower-orbit satellites, and exploring a new generation of weapons to function beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

Future technologies could include space drones, lasers for missile defense, or satellite-fired weapons. Other focuses include space-based sensors to monitor the land, air, and sea domains. Space technologies can support traditional military operations, but new space capabilities also require support of their own.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said at the Air Force Association Symposium that space-based systems need to be hardened to protect them in the event of a conflict.

“The simple fact is that the U.S. cannot project power successfully unless our space-based services are resilient enough to endure while under attack,” Kendall said. “Equally true, our terrestrial forces, Joint and Combined, cannot survive and perform their missions if our adversary’s space-based operational support systems, especially targeting systems, are allowed to operate with impunity.”

The addition of hundreds of new medium and low Earth orbit satellites enables greater degrees of connectivity between separate radar apertures. The satellites can help establish a continuous track on elusive targets such as incoming hypersonic missiles. 

With hardened networks and built-in redundancy, new constellations of satellites can network with geosynchronous satellites to create an integrated web. But older American satellites won’t be able to keep pace with new threats, Kendall said.

“While I applaud the assistance the Congress has provided this year, we are still limited in our ability to shift resources away from legacy platforms we need to retire to free up funds for modernization,” he said. “… We have a Space Force that inherited a set of systems designed for an era when we could operate in space with impunity.”

Making systems in space survivable means a mix of new technologies and tactics to allow space weapons and platforms to operate when under attack. Dispersing space systems can allow for continued operations if one satellite or system is destroyed or disabled. 

Hardening the networks themselves is also necessary. This can include building in cyber resiliency early in the developmental process along with anti-jamming technologies to ensure information can still be transferred when attacks occur.  

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.