A few weeks ago, Astralytical published my article about whether SpaceX could realistically conduct three Starship launches daily. This CNBC article relates to that story, demonstrating some of the FAA’s challenges with an increased rocket launch tempo.
Whenever someone in a position of authority raises the specter of the “space race” between China and the U.S., it’s worth remembering that that particular narrative has been shoved into the public’s eye often. Whether from a general, a politician, or a think tank, the story of China’s space activities posing a threat to U.S. military space assets is not new. It’s not that China’s government isn’t conducting a lot of space activities (it is), nor that China doesn’t have plans for dominating space (it does). But so do the United States, probably Russia, perhaps France, and maybe India.
Losing the Plot?
Those space plans are natural extensions of a nation’s ability to project global political and military power. However, it’s worth noting that the China/U.S. space race narrative may be blinding U.S. politicians and citizens from the “true” space race occurring in front of everyone’s noses–the race between U.S. commercial space industry and the U.S. military.
The bottom-line up-front prognosis is that the U.S. military is losing that race.
For decades, the U.S. military could credibly state that it operated satellites with advanced technology (or at least unique technology). It owned the most U.S. satellites: GPS, MILSTAR, DSCS, DSP, UFO, WGS, AEHF, SBIRS, etc. It trained troops to use each system as well as they could. Some of those troops would feed back into the pipeline working for the military as contractors and engineers with very specialized and valuable knowledge.
But that dynamic helped keep things too stable. Despite being decades old, many of those systems listed are still operational. On the one hand, that’s positive: the U.S. military purchased enduring satellites. But it also indicates that it’s relying on older systems.
One result is that commercial space companies managed not just to surpass U.S. military satellite deployments but, in some instances, provide capabilities that probably surpass U.S. military capabilities. They provide services to the military via contracts, but they are commercial companies, and investors may eventually become concerned about their assets being targeted by other nations. Some might already be responding to that concern.
Consider that consumers in the U.S. and other nations have access to a high-speed global communications system tied to the internet: Starlink. Thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth provide that service, with some using laser crosslinks to keep the connection constant between users and the internet. Laser crosslinks are so unique in the U.S. military that the Space Development Agency (SDA) was recently praised for planning to use them in its constellations. There are instances of government satellites with laser crosslinks, but nothing as complex or numerous as those used by Starlink.
Connecting to those satellites using an inexpensive ground terminal automatically tracking satellites in the sky is nearly effortless. Consumers need no specialized knowledge to use them. Like the laser crosslinks, the small phased array antenna with automatic satellite tracking offered to consumers is beyond what U.S. military troops use for maintaining military communications satellite contacts.
SpaceX has recently stated that Starlink is not intended for military use. Maybe it’s fudging the truth, but doesn’t that statement also indicate that Starlink may attempt to keep the U.S. military, and others, from routinely using the service? If so, then questions need to be asked. What does the U.S. military have that equals the capabilities of that system? What is the alternative?
Perhaps an alternative exists, but based on current dedicated military communications satellites known to the public, the honest answers appear to be “Nothing” and “There isn’t one.”
Less Satellites=Less Experience
The hundreds of U.S. commercially-operated Earth observation and remote sensing (EO/RS) satellites deployed in the last decade or so point to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) falling behind there as well. There’s also more variety of EO/RS products commercial companies offer, such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), optical, infrared (IR), signals intelligence, and more.
It’s not that the DoD has no EO/RS satellites, nor that those satellites are inferior to their commercial counterparts. On the contrary, they are probably significantly better and hardened against attack. But there certainly aren’t near as many DoD EO/RS satellites as there are commercially-operated ones, which is a flip from a decade ago. Commercial space operators will likely outnumber specialized military satellite payloads such as SAR and IR. If we know anything about how the U.S. military demonstrates that it is falling behind China, the increasing number of satellite deployments is a critical part of the narrative.
Worse is that the DoD’s troops are not trained on these new systems. SpaceX’s Starlink operators are gaining loads of experience as they monitor and command their satellites. They conduct orbital analyses to determine collision avoidance probabilities and implement solutions. They are using a ground system that is inherently more comprehensive and flexible than what their military counterparts are used to. It might be a more responsive system than some of the UNIX-based atrocities the military uses (I’m guessing some still use that OS).
Worse, U.S. troops don’t get to practice using a system that Ukraine’s troops are leveraging against Russia. Some interesting tactics are resulting from Ukraine’s military using Starlink. In that regard, the U.S. military’s communications strategy and implementation may run behind Ukraine’s.
Snatching Failure from Success??
The problem for the DoD isn’t that the space technology for speedy space-based network communications isn’t mature. Companies like SpaceX are using technologies that have existed for decades. It’s not that the technology doesn’t work, either. Again, SpaceX’s Starlink seems to be working as designed. There were even some surprises in technology use, such as SpaceX’s novel method of deploying Starlink into orbit. Even launch isn’t the problem, even though the military must rely on SpaceX (until ULA demonstrates Vulcan’s reliability). Again, and unfortunately (because it’s the only one who can), SpaceX is demonstrating it can almost launch on a whim, quickly, and as often as necessary.
There also doesn’t appear to be a lack of awareness in the DoD of what these technologies could do for the military. The SDA is in the middle of getting a modest LEO broadband constellation (and other missions) in orbit for the DoD. And the conflict in Ukraine highlights the awareness of what a system like Starlink, combined with updated EO/RS data, can do for soldiers in the field. It’s certainly not a money problem. Congress rarely cuts into the DoD’s budget, and the DoD has bought satellites that individually cost as much as the Starlink constellation.
Despite these things being in place and within reach, the DoD is behind Starlink and other newer space startups bringing more EO/RS satellites with various sensor payloads to consumers. Why is that?
While I have suspicions (noted in this series of articles), maybe the DoD should start viewing the satellites it purchases in a very different light. Perhaps they should be viewed similarly to F-22s and battle tanks–to be used and, if necessary, lost to complete the mission. If an adversary takes out a satellite…okay. Just have a new one ready on the launch pad to take its place (I don’t know if the U.S. Space Force practices this scenario). Is there a newer technology that’s matured that gives troops the edge? Then maybe it’s time to quickly replace the older system (which was disposable by design).
It’s probably safe to say there will be no battles between the U.S. commercial space industry and the DoD. Many of the former are attempting to gain the DoD’s patronage for their products. But contracts, while useful, should be viewed as a spackle to the holes in the DoD’s capabilities. The DoD also has specialized satellites that commercial companies will likely never pursue, because the commercial market is too small to be profitable.
However, the seeming sudden rearward shift for the DoD, specifically in communications, should be concerning. U.S. troops on the battlefield may, for the next decade, be forced to use less capable (albeit still useful) communications networks and equipment operated by the DoD. Retirees in RVs paying very little (when compared to the military) will have superior connectivity in the wilds of the U.S.
Circling back, the U.S. generals appear to be correct and wrong at the same time. They are losing the space race, but it’s not China beating them–just some entrepreneurs out to make a buck.