Starlink and the Future Battlefield

A few stories have circulated about how SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is frustrating Russian communications jamming efforts even while its satellites are providing a backup to broadband communications on the ground. In addition, Elon Musk has noted that his constellation would challenge any nation to physically attack just because of the sheer quantity of Starlink satellites in orbit already (over 2,000). Both constellation characteristics are why U.S. military officials are singing the constellation’s praises as Starlink continues to provide broadband service in Ukraine.

No Surprises on the Battlefield (so far)

Today’s only meaningful question for commercial LEO broadband is whether it can become a viable business. But none of the previously mentioned stories should come as a surprise. After all, the U.S. Department of Defense has always wanted low Earth orbiting (LEO) broadband satellites. Starlink’s traits during the war in Ukraine are why the DoD desired them. A LEO constellation’s utility during battle was never in question. The redundancies inherent in a constellation such as Starlink, which consists of thousands of low-cost satellites, present hard questions to any adversary that wants to take them out.

Of course, the overall decision one must make is to attack a commercial satellite–for that is what Starlink is–a commercial communications satellite constellation. It’s not a government- or military-owned asset. Once that decision is made, the question is whether it makes sense to shoot down a satellite that costs less than the missile shooting it down? Another is whether the nation’s military even has enough anti-satellite missiles to degrade a constellation the size of Starlink? Based on what we see from Russia during the conflict, the answer to all of those questions is probably “no.” 

It’s also interesting that, for as much as the DoD has banged the drum about Russian anti-satellite satellites in orbit posing a threat to other satellites, we haven’t heard a peep about any movement of Russian satellites since the conflict began. But then again, maybe the immediate answer to this lack of Russian anti-space prowess is that Russia is at war with Ukraine and not SpaceX. 

Russian targeting distinctions between military and civilian are non-existent in Ukraine, but targeting the company of a nation that can strengthen Ukraine’s position may be a reasonable explanation for no physical attacks on Starlink. More likely, Russia’s overall performance, incompetence, corruption, low morale, and more would also explain Russia’s lack of responses to Starlink. The low performance, in particular, might be a reason we should take SpaceX’s apparent success in overcoming Russian jamming with some grains of salt. Just as likely is the scenario that Russia doesn’t have the resources and can’t afford to attack Starlink.

SDA’s Satellites are Still too Expensive

Still, the conflict shows that the DoD’s decades-long desire for a resilient LEO broadband system is justified. Starlink is the technical-demonstration constellation that appears to be proving its value on the battlefield. Before Starlink, the DoD couldn’t afford anything like it, prioritizing instead the proven but hugely expensive missile warning, global positioning, and geosynchronous communications satellites. 

Even affordability is changing with the Space Development Agency selecting three companies to build satellites for its space-based communications network last week. The SDA’s selection inadvertently highlights why a LEO broadband network was not affordable. Each awarded contract’s value displays a disparity between those awarded to legacy defense companies (Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman) and the one awarded to a new satellite manufacturer (York Space). The legacy companies were around ~$700 million each, while York Space received $382 million. 

I suspect that if it weren’t for the presence of York and other newer satellite manufacturers, Lockheed and Northrop would have been able to wrangle much more for their contracts. As it is, the SDA is defending the higher awards by noting that Lockheed and Northrop are outsourcing their satellites’ buses. Theoretically, outsourcing is supposed to make things less costly. Maybe it did: the contract awards are still not too bad overall. But, it may still not be affordable enough, as I’ll explain later.

Each company is supposed to build 42 small satellites, which means Lockheed’s and Northrop’s satellites will cost about $16.5 million each. Each of York’s satellites, on the other hand, will cost about $9.1 million. For some comparison, even at York’s prices, the DoD would be shelling out a lot, about $18 billion, just to buy the equivalent number of satellites currently in Starlink’s constellation. That is why SDA is merely looking to deploy hundreds of these satellites, not thousands. It also exposes a flaw in the SDA’s thinking. 

The flaw is this: the more costly a satellite is to manufacture and deploy, the more it may make sense for an adversary to target it. The higher cost causes the DoD to deploy a smaller constellation. That, in turn, may make it much easier for a determined adversary to degrade the constellation. Physically degrading a 2,000 satellite (and more to come in Starlink’s case) constellation is very daunting. But the SDA’s constellation may be small enough for an adversary to believe an attempt is worth it. 

There will be lessons to be learned for LEO broadband operations in contested areas because of Ukraine. If the U.S. Space Force and DoD continue the same messaging after this conflict, that will show none were learned. The optimistic side of my sunny personality hopes they will study the conflict closely, then respond quickly–as a military force should.

Space Industry Heading for a Dead-End?

When I posted “Single Point of Failure,” one comment I received asked if, because of the commercial space launch situation, the industry is at a dead end? My answer to that is: absolutely not. Government and military satellites primarily drive the need for rockets that can launch large payloads. While commercial communications satellite providers also use large satellites, using SpaceX won’t necessarily hurt their investors even for a little while. But there is undoubtedly a loss of flexibility and a higher level of risk in relying on just one company.

The challenges faced by non-competitive companies such as the United Launch Alliance and Arianespace are primarily brought on by their inaction. Some of it, such as ULA’s reliance on Blue Origin to produce a working rocket engine, makes it worse. But those challenges are someone else’s opportunities. Unfortunately, the problem for most of us monitoring this industry is that it’s not entirely obvious who someone else will be. 

It could be that Arianespace and ULA finally get the message and somehow pull something extraordinary out of their hats (doubtful). Blue Origin might finally become the orbital launch company it’s been promoting for the last decade (maybe). It could be a company that just started up today. Many pitch decks contain nice-looking rockets, but none appear to be more than that. Many entrepreneurs want to be the “next SpaceX,” which I believe is too unambitious. They should be aiming to be the company that dominates SpaceX. They should try to become the company that exploits SpaceX’s weaknesses. And then quickly prove the truth of these words.

Opportunity Doesn’t Require Government Validation

Opportunity exists. For European space entrepreneurs (and paraphrasing Pet Shop Boys), there are a lot of opportunities. But they shouldn’t rely on the EU, EC, ESA, or other international bureaucracies to provide those opportunities. Some companies in the U.S. did (and still do) expect NASA and the DoD to do the same thing. It’s only recently that some commercial companies are succeeding in other space projects aside from those hoity-toity high-priced science and defense missions.

But it’s still a work in progress, primarily because of the insane amounts of money each organization throws into the sector (which will only increase thanks to these latest budget adjustments). The money’s attractiveness is difficult for many entrepreneurs and investors to ignore. It also forces companies to compete against each other on projects that aren’t commercial in nature but are deemed important because government employees say they are. Those projects are important—to the governments—but because of budgetary constraints, will benefit few companies in the space sector.

In Europe, for example, it’s evident from Thierry Breton’s comments and plans that there’s only one opportunity that matters–LEO broadband. Certainly, companies (typically the same companies) will benefit financially from his focus. His focus, however, leaves a lot of other opportunities around for those willing to grab them. ESA’s handpicking of companies for its missions results in the same thing. Just because the EU or ESA forgoes other missions and services doesn’t mean they aren’t profitable (it’s usually the case they are likely more profitable–we’ve seen this with NASA). Whether in the U.S. or Europe, those entrepreneurs seeking opportunities must do their homework instead of investing in an artist. 

The other reason for some more optimism is the smallsat economy. The revenues from commercial smallsat companies are small and don’t come close to revenues from traditional space industry companies. Commercial smallsats do not replace the capabilities of some larger satellites. Still, sometimes they are good enough, and perhaps for that reason alone, a reason why more smallsats were deployed during 2021 than ever (not even including Starlink and OneWeb satellites).

Worldwide, there are multiple smallsat manufacturers. There’s a diversity of smallsat launchers. In many ways, the smallsat economy’s diversity indicates a much healthier environment than what exists for launching large satellites. While that’s all good cause for optimism, there are still questions surrounding the business cases of the companies deploying many of the smallsats so far. Questions are good, though, when attempting to discover more opportunities.

One of those smallsat launch companies, Rocket Lab, is building a bigger rocket. While that rocket won’t compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 head-on, it will still provide more capability than many others. And that’s another reason for optimism. Perhaps more smallsat launch companies will decide to go big eventually. 

But no, the industry isn’t at a dead end. If anything, it may be primed to get much, much larger.

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