From The Editor | December 4, 2023

Why Space Force Is Launching Its Own Satellite Swarm

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By John Oncea, Editor

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The U.S. Space Force is revolutionizing satellite deployment, transitioning from costly singular satellites to swarms of smaller, more agile ones for enhanced defense against rival nations' missile threats. Will the switch change the way the USSF does business, or is it simply changing the culture of the agency?

Imagine it’s August 1, 1907. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson appears in the first of his 802 games, throwing eight innings in Washington’s 3-2 loss to Detroit. Across the pond, on the idyllic Brownsea Island in Dorset, southern England, the first-ever Scout camp opened with 22 English boys from different social backgrounds participating in nine days of camping, observing, wood crafting, chivalry, lifesaving, and patriotism.

Meanwhile, with the issuance of Office Memorandum No. 6, the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps, consisting at its inception of one officer and two enlistees, begins operations. Captain Charles deForest Chandler was named to head the new division, with Corporal Edward Ward and Private First Class Joseph E. Barrett as his assistants.

The Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps lasted until July 18, 1914, when it was absorbed and replaced by the Aviation Section, Signal Corps. The lineage of what is now the United States Air Force continued over the next 33 years, to the Division of Military Aeronautics; the Air Service, United States Army; the United States Army Air Corps; and the United States Army Air Forces on June 20, 1941. Finally, on September 18, 1947, the United States Air Force as we now know it was created.

At that point, the U.S. military consisted of five branches: the Army (formed June 14, 1775), the Navy (October 13, 1775), Marine Corps (November 10, 1775), Coast Guard (August 4, 1790), and aforementioned Air Force. Things stayed that way for 72 years until, on December 20, 2019, the U.S. Space Force (USSF), part of the Department of the Air Force along with the U.S. Air Force, was established when the National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law.

The establishment of the USSF, the smallest U.S. armed service with 8,600 military personnel, resulted from widespread recognition that space is a national security imperative. When combined with the growing threat posed by strategic competitors in space, it became clear that there was a need for a military service focused solely on pursuing superiority in the space domain.

Work Smaller, Not Harder

The Department of Defense has been working in the space domain since the beginning of space exploration but made it an official part of its domain with the creation of the USSF four years ago. The objectives of the USSF include the consolidation of satellite acquisitions, budgeting, and managing a workforce from across more than 60 different organizations into a unified, efficient, effective service for space operations.

Until recently, many of the satellites it has launched to conduct orbital warfare, military intelligence, cyber operations, and more have been “billion-dollar Battlestar Glatacticas,” according to Derek Tournear, director of the USSF’s Space Development Agency. But recently the USSF has launched satellite swarms – multiple small satellites that work together to accomplish various missions – to add “an architecture that (gives) us resilience against threats and that we could upgrade rapidly every two years,” Tournear said.

From the Pentagon’s perspective, the satellites that make up the USSF’s first satellite network will be a harder target for rivals to strike; a missile or a laser attack might take out an individual satellite but would do little to weaken a whole swarm.

The recently launched satellites have been designed for defensive purposes, with a primary focus on missile tracking, data transfer, and communication between the satellites and their ground systems. The first 10 satellites were launched into low Earth orbit on April 2, and 13 more were launched in late August from Vandenberg USSF Base in California.

The agency is planning to launch a batch of 28 satellites this year, which they call “Tranche 0.” These satellites will mainly be used for testing and demonstrating their technologies, as well as training people to use them. Following this, Tranche 1 will be launched in late 2024, consisting of more than 160 operational satellites. These satellites will be used for tracking ballistic and hypersonic missiles, with a focus on those from China, Russia, and North Korea. The agency plans to have nearly 1,000 satellites in orbit within a few years.

“The Department of Defense currently relies on about 10 missile defense satellites in geosyncronous orbit, which means their orbits keep pace with the Earth’s rotation at an altitude of about 22,000 miles,” writes the Space Defense Agency (SDA). “Flying the new swarm in low Earth orbit, which is only 600 miles above the ground, will improve their detection sensitivity and the timeliness of their missile warnings.”

Their small size, only an eighth of current satellites, makes them cheaper and faster to develop and launch. “As threats to space expand, we can no longer rely on a strategy of putting most of our capabilities into these few large, exquisite satellite systems. Now the DOD is taking the approach of building many systems on shorter timelines,” says Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose funders include some US-based aerospace companies and military contractors.

Although it is a military operation, the USSF is purchasing satellite technology from private companies through contracts. The new satellites, provided by SpaceX and Florida-based L3Harris, will form a swarm that will track missiles using their wide field-of-view sensors. Another group of satellites, provided by Lockheed Martin and Colorado-based York Space Systems, will relay data between ground systems and the spacecraft. The SDA spokesperson, Jennifer Elzea, stated that the agency will add other networks to the mix in about two years, including satellites from Northrop Grumman.

A Giant Step For The Military

The military initially resisted the approach of using many small satellites instead of a few large ones, as it is a departure from their traditional operating methods. “It’s a bit of a culture shock,” Bingen says.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Ukraine and its NATO allies utilized a network of small satellites, including SpaceX's Starlink for broadband, Maxar's and other companies for optical and radar imagery, and GPS.

“While Russia has invested in anti-satellite missiles, lasers, and electronic weapons, none of these are suited for taking down a swarm,” SDA writes. “That demonstrated the utility of this kind of constellation,” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, CO. ‘Why isn’t Russia blowing up Starlink satellites?’ he asks. ‘They have the capability, but it’s just not going to matter.’”

Although the swarm of satellites will be flying in a relatively congested low Earth orbit, there is a risk of collisions with other satellites and space debris such as derelict spacecraft and shrapnel from previous anti-satellite missile tests. However, the swarm will not overlap with the orbits of major commercial constellations. Instead, they will operate above Starlink satellites and below OneWeb's network.

The USSF has proposed a budget of $4 billion for satellite systems in 2024, which is double the number of previous years. The agency is also requesting an annual budget of $5 billion through 2028. Approval of this budget by Congress would indicate strong U.S. government support for this new military strategy. To put this into perspective, the four-year budget for new satellites is equivalent to the cost of two James Webb Space Telescopes.

The USSF is launching its satellite constellations at a time when the U.S. is facing increasing rivalry with China and Russia. All three countries have been expanding their military capabilities in space, including investing in satellites and technologies that could be used to attack them. Unfortunately, there is very little diplomacy or communication between the militaries of the U.S. and China, except for warnings of close encounters between objects in orbit. Even the two countries' civilian space programs are restricted from cooperating due to a policy called the Wolf Amendment.

“One of the motivations for building this satellite network is the development of faster-moving hypersonic missiles, which China and the U.S. have both tested over the past couple of years,” writes SDA. “Hypersonic missiles travel at five times the speed of sound or faster, and they fly at much lower altitudes than intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. ICBMs rely on booster rockets to blast them through the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Ballistic missiles are designed to travel through the edge of space and only enter the atmosphere near their target. In contrast, hypersonic glide vehicles need to continuously use fuel to travel through the denser atmosphere. This makes them visible to infrared detectors due to their exhaust plumes and aerodynamic heating during flight. The military will use new satellite swarms equipped with infrared detectors to detect hypersonic glide vehicles, while ground- and sea-based radar sensors will continue to be used to detect ballistic missiles.

According to some reports, the Pentagon's current missile defense systems have only achieved a 50% success rate in tests. However, the new satellite swarm could potentially improve these systems by providing faster and more accurate data. But, says David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., it’s the USSF’s shift toward constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites that’s most notable: “I see this more as a culture change than a capability change.”