Small satellite constellations: agile, resilient and replaceable in a conflict
7 Dec 2020|

Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update describes a regional environment that will be more challenging for Australia and warns that the nation must be better prepared for the prospect of high-intensity conflict.

Central to this calculus are concerns over China’s behaviour in the region and its development of military capabilities that could degrade the technical and warfighting superiority of the US and its allies. While there’s much focus on China’s strike capabilities—exemplified by the testing of the carrier-killer DF-21D—the counter-warfare capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army and its capacity to blind or deceive our command and control and intelligence links are of equal concern.

Since January 2007, we have been aware of the PLA’s ability to destroy satellites with conventional weapons. We have also recently learned much about its ability to disable satellites using cyber or electronic warfare techniques. This has been well documented by the Pentagon and think tanks such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the high-intensity conflict envisaged by the strategic update, the Australian Defence Force should be prepared for disruption to the space-based services (communications, intelligence gathering, navigation and timing) it relies upon. These services are provided by large satellites in very high geostationary orbit (GEO) or by small constellations of large satellites in medium-altitude orbits.

Against a capable adversary in a high-intensity conflict, these large satellites will be targeted and held at risk. A response is to have a layered approach, with space services provided by a mix of large and small satellites in both high and low orbits.

Arguments that smallsat constellations in low-earth orbit (LEO) don’t provide genuine military capability have typically pivoted on questions of cost and capability. A competitive commercial space launch industry, and the involvement of big players in the smallsat market such as SpaceX and Amazon, mean the costs of producing and launching smallsats are falling rapidly. As miniaturisation, signal processing and antenna technologies evolve, smallsats can begin to offer serious military capabilities.

The US military seems to recognise this. The Defense Department’s Blackjack program—a smallsat testbed run by DARPA, the department’s research and development agency—and recent awarding of a contract to Viasat to develop a Link-16 (warfighting tactical datalink)-capable smallsat constellation indicate that the US military believes LEO smallsats can provide warfighting capabilities.

Satellites in LEO have some key advantages. Because they fly closer to earth (200–1000 kilometres), they can move data quickly—33 times faster than satellites in GEO. That is so quick that Space X is banking on its LEO Starlink constellation providing an improved computer gaming experience. This advantage has an application in future high-end conflict where speed of data transmission could mean the difference between mission success and failure.

Smallsats are not invulnerable, and they can be targeted. But moving at speed in great numbers, and operating as a single meshed network, a LEO smallsat constellation has inbuilt resilience and will be harder to degrade. Smallsats can also be reconstituted more rapidly than larger satellites—with spares available in orbit or ready to launch.

It’s not inconceivable that in the future a smallsat constellation could be rapidly deployed to provide short-term, mission-specific support. This agility in deployment means smallsats can more easily be kept ‘evergreen’ as technology and threats evolve. Larger satellites with long lifespans cannot be refreshed easily.

Agility extends to coverage. Starlink promises high-speed broadband to anyone on the planet with a Starlink receiver. LEO smallsats can be deployed to cover areas with no service, or where service has been disrupted.

The Australian government has matched its appraisal of the strategic environment with a substantial funding commitment to defence. Spread over two decades, investment in space capabilities is $13.4 billion, of which $4.6–6.9 billion is for the provision of a ‘network of satellites to provide an independent and sovereign communications network and an enhanced space control program’.

With such a substantial investment, careful choices will be needed to ensure future space services are supported, and that they are resilient. The threat suggests a mix of space solutions, and services provided by satellites in both high and low orbits will be needed.

Australian industry is ready to help Defence and other government agencies develop and deliver this capability. Australia’s space companies are well placed to contribute to a sovereign smallsat supply chain; some, such as Skykraft, Myriota, Innovor, EM Solutions and Sabre Astronautics, are already progressing commercially viable smallsat-relevant capabilities. The time is right to harness the innovation and intellectual capital in our space companies into a truly national sovereign capability.

Defence has been conducting limited experiments with industry, but these efforts will need to be scaled up and accelerated if Australia is to realise a sovereign smallsat capability to support warfighters by the end of this decade.

LEO smallsat constellations promise to provide redundancy and agility in space. However, there are many questions we’ll have to answer before we can be sure of the feasibility of a sovereign smallsat capability. Establishing a robust test and evaluation program in concert with industry and academia, to include deployment of testbed constellations, should be a first step. In parallel, consideration should be given to including smallsat capabilities for the delivery of space services as one of Australia’s sovereign industrial capability priorities.

Defence is best positioned to lead this work but the utility of a sovereign smallsat capability would extend to a range of national missions—national disaster support, border protection, and support to Pacific neighbours—means it’s best viewed as a national endeavour. Other parts of government should contribute resources. Such an effort would be consistent with the Australian Space Agency’s civil space strategy and the agency is very well positioned to help establish what could be a flagship program.