US Military Places a Bet on LEO for Space Security
Over the next two years, the Defense Department will launch the first of hundreds of small satellites populating Low Earth Orbit, that can directly link to and benefit from the megaconstellations being built by SpaceX, Telesat, and other commercial vendors. Its level of success could radically change the military satellite industry.
May 25, 2021
U.S. Defense Department agencies are working with a who's-who of military contractors, commercial satellite operators, and technology companies to finally demonstrate the feasibility of a proliferated constellation of satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
The concept of using hundreds of small satellites spread out across that orbit to perform communications, missile warning, and other military missions, has been discussed for years. But it was often dismissed as a pipe dream due to the immense launch cost projections, and size, weight, and power constraints required to operate and maintain capabilities in Low-Earth Orbit.
But thanks to recent, rapid technology advancements in the commercial sector, that pipe dream is now becoming a reality, and many former skeptics have come along for the ride.
When Derek Tournear was a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 10 to 15 years ago, he was unconvinced that small satellites operating together in a constellation could be powerful enough to enable those crucial missions.
Now, as the director of the DoD’s Space Development Agency (SDA), Tournear is a little over a year away from launching the initial satellites for the U.S. military’s first proliferated LEO constellation, which will eventually include layers of hundreds of sensors. “I’ve completely changed my tune,” he says.
The rise of the megaconstellation is sweeping the space industry in both commercial and defense. About one-third of active satellites in orbit are Starlink satellites, launched by SpaceX since 2019. In the next decade, up to 50,000 satellites could orbit the Earth, analysts project. In the nearer term, several thousand satellites will be built and distributed among LEO. Most will be commercially operated, but at least a few hundred will belong to the U.S. military.
The Space Development Agency was set up in 2019 to disrupt military satellite acquisition by putting a new set of minimum-viable capabilities on orbit every two years, emulating the smartphone industry’s approach to upgrades. Its singular focus for the next few years is to design, build up, and launch the DoD’s next-generation National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA).
This new ecosystem of hundreds of satellites operating in LEO will differ significantly from the way DoD has traditionally fielded a small amount of enormous and powerful, but exquisite systems over decade-long production cycles to operate largely in Geostationary Orbit (GEO), as well as other orbits.
The new birds will host sensors that comprise seven capability layers, to seamlessly perform data communications, track hypersonic and cruise missiles, and provide enhanced battle management, navigation, ground support, and deterrence from space. Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems are each building 10 satellites for the initial data communications transport layer, while L3Harris Technologies and SpaceX will develop four satellites each for an advanced missile tracking layer. The average cost of these satellites is about $14.1 million, per Tournear.
These initial 28 satellites are slated to launch in September 2022 and March 2023. But first, the SDA and its partners will launch four technology demonstration satellites in June 2021, seeking to prove how optical crosslinks will allow the data transport layer satellites to talk to each other, and those in commercial networks.
SDA will recompete each tranche of new satellite builds and launches, with the goal of consistently folding in new capabilities every couple of years. Later this summer, the agency will release solicitations for its next 150 satellites to fill out the transport and tracking layers, with contract awards expected in January 2022 and launches set for 2024, says Tournear.
The viability of this new military space architecture will be heavily informed by the risk reduction work performed by DARPA on its Blackjack project, which has been in development since 2018. The research and development agency plans to launch up to 22 satellites through 2022 to illustrate whether the DoD can tap into emerging commercial LEO constellations coming out of companies like SpaceX, Telesat, and OneWeb for military use, says Stephen Forbes, Blackjack’s program manager.
The lessons learned through those launches and tests will then be applied to the broader National Defense Space Architecture being developed in tandem by SDA. The Blackjack program is more about proving out the architecture’s viability, than putting actual hardware in orbit. “I will consider the Blackjack program successful when we show LEO satellites collaborating together to provide a mission service to a DoD user,” Forbes says.
The industry team for Blackjack is a melting pot of traditional military prime contractors, commercial satellite operators — many of whom are involved in their own megaconstellation development — and technology companies. Telesat, Airbus, and Blue Canyon Technologies are developing satellite buses, while SA Photonics, Mynaric, and Raytheon are providing payloads. Lockheed Martin is contracted as system integrator.
Blackjack is also a team effort across DoD entities. The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles is a partner through its Commercial Augmented Space Inter-Networked Operations (CASINO) program office, providing programmatic and technical assistance. One of the June satellite demos, Mandrake-2, is run by DARPA in partnership with the SDA.
These programs have already moved much faster than traditional satellite programs. Tournear notes that the SDA received its first batch of funding for Mandrake-2 in February 2020. Satellite provider Astro Digital delivered the systems in December, and the launch date is set for June 2021.
There were some speed bumps along the way, namely the impacts of COVID-19 on sub-tier component supply chains, and a protest on SDA’s first award. Both Forbes and Tournear credit their industry teams for minimizing the effects of supply chain issues, by re-sourcing components or finding workarounds, and say programs remain on schedule.
Airbus and Raytheon each filed protests late last year, when SpaceX and L3Harris won the tracking layer contracts in October 2020. The contracts were restored in January 2021 after the required stop-work period, per the agency. “For almost any government space program, 60 days is not a big deal,” Tournear says. “But when you are counting down, week by week, the number of weeks to launch, 60 days is a big deal.”
The pressure is on for these program offices to prove their value. Military space leaders say satellites can no longer be “big, juicy targets” for potential anti-satellite weapon attacks from Russia or China, and the rise of maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles means the DoD needs improved tracking systems.
A proliferated LEO constellation becomes more resilient just by increasing the number of potential targets. For anyone looking to take down a U.S. spacecraft, “The bullet now costs more than the satellite,” says Bill Gattle, president of Space and Intelligence Systems at L3HarrisTechnologies.
The new architecture also speeds up how quickly warfighters receive data on the ground, he notes. “If I’m flying [a satellite] over a restricted country, and I can’t get the data off of that satellite into a shooter for 15 minutes, it’s too late. It’s not real time,” he says.
The proliferated LEO concept was not always welcome in the defense community. While there were those in the Pentagon who saw its value, for years many felt that the costs and resources required to field such a network were insurmountable challenges. When the SDA was stood up, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was vocal in her assertion that a “one-size-fits-all” architecture filled with small satellites would “result in failure on America’s worst day, if relied upon.”
But a fundamental technology shift over the past two to four years, led by commercial space companies, is proving out the proliferated LEO case. This includes Moore’s Law’s principles of computing, the commoditization of satellite parts, and advancements in key tech like optical crosslinks, onboard processors, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Companies are now building mass production facilities with assembly lines that can complete hundreds of satellites per month.
But it’s not only about the satellites, or the sensors aboard them. As launch costs have recently come down, the business case for sending hundreds of spacecraft into orbit is more palatable for the government. Hopping on rideshares allows the military to build satellites as needed, and replenish them on orbit to keep the network resilient against potential attacks.
“All of these factors combined have now made it a technological reality that you can build and operate proliferated LEO satellites affordably and quickly,” says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Government officials, analysts, and commercial leaders all single out optical crosslink technology as critical for this new architecture. Not only do laser links provide the throughput capabilities to make the mesh network possible, but the way they route signals across satellites, avoiding ground stations in contested territories if necessary, reduces the risk of interference and detection.
That makes optical crosslink technology an “absolute must” for defense-related proliferated LEO applications, says Bulent Altan, CEO of Mynaric, which is providing its CONDOR optical crosslink terminals to DARPA’s Blackjack program. “If you look at the [requests for proposals] coming out of DARPA, SDA and many others, you realize how important it is,” he says.
Mynaric and other crosslink providers worked with the SDA to develop an interoperability standard that ensures laser crosslinks on satellites in the eventual National Defense Space Architecture can communicate with those in future commercial constellations, like Amazon’s Project Kuiper, or Telesat’s Lightspeed. That standard was approved in draft form earlier this year, and in April, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and Mynaric successfully connected their standard-compliant modems via optical fiber for the first time at an SDA/NRL-hosted testbed.
The ability to seamlessly transfer data from Starlink or Telesat satellites to DoD data transport systems is at the core of the U.S. military’s proliferated LEO business case. It’s what enables a hybrid network where the commercial satellites provide extremely capable high-speed networks that the government can then plug into as needed.
Amid the standup of the U.S. Space Force in late 2019, space leaders pushed to better leverage commercial technology and capability for DoD use. Proliferated LEO is a major focal point for that discussion, says Lt. Col. Timothy Trimailo, Blackjack/CASINO program manager at SMC. “The bottom line is that these government and commercial transport layers, whether it’s SDA’s transport layer, or these megaconstellations … offer this increased opportunity for needed resilience. It gives us different networking opportunities,” he says.
While the first Blackjack and National Defense Space Architecture satellites are still on the ground, the intensified focus on Low-Earth Orbit has already shaken up the defense space industry — perhaps for the long term.
Companies are placing their bets on the best approach for success in this new ecosystem. Newer space companies are in a “sweet spot” to get into the market if they specialize in building small satellites or key technology enablers, says Harrison.
Some defense primes are scaling up manufacturing, or incorporating more commonality and modularity into their systems to bring costs down and build satellites at the rate the DoD is looking for. “We’ve never seen these quantities [of satellites] in space before the last five years,” says L3Harris’ Gattle. “We used to think we built a lot of things — and we built four of them. Now, we’re talking hundreds.”
Other contractors are employing mergers and acquisitions, or taking on specialized space companies as subcontractors to keep some skin in the game. Raytheon finalized the acquisition of Blue Canyon Technologies earlier this year, while Lockheed Martin enlisted smallsat bus builder Tyvak on its SDA contract.
Charles Beames, chairman of the Smallsat Alliance and executive chairman of York Space Systems, sees parallels between the satellite industry today, and the computer boom of the 1990s and early 2000s — when desktop computing and handheld devices went from being expensive, heavy and specialized, to accessible for every household.
“While very capable small satellites have come down in price dramatically just in the last five years, I think that we’re going to see them drop even more,” he says. Defense primes that are accustomed to cost-plus contracts with the government are now adapting to a new landscape of firm-fixed price deals and early capability investment, he notes.
As the orbital landscape for military space shifts from largely GEO to LEO, companies don’t have years to hone their game plans. For now, the Defense Department still wants satellites in GEO, even as it begins sending hundreds of birds into LEO. By late summer, the DoD plans to release a study “that will have a vision of this kind of hybrid [architecture], with multiple layers at different orbits,” says Tournear.
For Beames, a multi-layered architecture is only a transition period. As systems get smaller and more powerful, he sees many of the capabilities currently operating in GEO and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) largely going to LEO over the next 10 to 15 years.
Yet the DoD’s proliferated LEO ambitions may be curbed by an austere budget environment. The fiscal year 2022 defense budget is expected to run flat to this year's funding, and Democrats in Congress will run through the Pentagon’s request with a fine-toothed comb.
The program offices developing this new architecture will still have to prove their value next to decades-long space programs. “With the new administration and in a tighter budget environment, will [Congress] be willing to pay for this hybrid approach of dual-track modernization, where we’re building the next generation of the big exquisite satellites, while we’re also building a new generation of proliferated LEO satellites?” Harrison says.
Observers say that so far, the Space Development Agency and its partners in this effort are delivering on their promises. They’ve shown it’s possible to buy military-capable smallsats for $14 million apiece, and that they can successfully link them to commercial systems in a test environment. But the real proof will come when the capabilities are delivered to space, the sensors are turned on, and the entire mesh network operates the way it’s supposed to.
For now, Tournear is keeping an eye on his calendar for the initial NDSA satellite launch in September 2022, and says the SDA will keep proving its value.
“We are out there. We are pushing, we are hitting the milestones,” he says. “This is a market that industry can expect to grow, and the government has strong support behind it. This will be the way that we’re providing space capabilities in the future.” VS
Vivienne Machi is an award-winning reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany. Her writing has appeared in outlets including Foreign Policy, Defense News, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, and National Defense Magazine. Twitter: @VivienneMachi