Guest Post: Robert Haddick on “Everyone will watch the future battlefield”
What are the strategic implications of the proliferation of commercial space-based imaging and communications’ satellites? Lawfire® readerrs know we’ve addressed on several occasions the legal implications of using commercial space assets for military purposes (see e.g., here, here and here).
In today’s post Robert Haddick unpacks for us the military implications of the tremendous growth in such capabilities, and what it may mean for future battlefields. He makes this eye-opening observation:
Summing up, by the end of this decade we can expect as many private and government satellite constellations as there are currently individual Defense Department satellites. Each of these modern constellations will be comprised of at least hundreds and in many cases, thousand of small satellites, linked in data-sharing mesh networks. Finally, and crucially, we should expect major adversaries such as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) space forces to establish their own similar imaging and communication satellite constellations.
Furthermore, he also poses a troubling hypothetical as to what this “democratization of intelligence” might mean for leaders of nations whose citizenry will have instantly available to them intelligence data once only seen by national leaders.
The ”democratization” of space imaging will create new pressures on political leaders during crises. During a hypothetical future crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the public will observe the buildup of China’s invasion force in real time, just as policymakers at the White House and Pentagon will. The public will watch as not just Taiwan but U.S. military bases in the western Pacific Ocean come under increasing threat. Any president that waits for China to strike first could suffer severe political consequences after the fact when the public was able to observe the unfolding story in real time. We should expect decision-makers in Beijing to feel the same pressure in this scenario. The result for both sides will be an overwhelming pressure to strike first, with dangerous consequences for crisis stability.
Robert argues that increasingly ubiquitous satellites and the enromous amount of information they provide will requires militaries to adapt this new reality or, literally, die. He says that “[a]dapting to the new battle networks will favor military forces that are flexible, mobile, speedy, and that can operate effectively in small, dispersed, yet coordinated units” and adds that “[t]hese are attributes that well-trained air and space forces can possess.”
Currently, the U.S. enjoys an advantage in just such air and space forces, but cautions that “U.S. government and allied leaders will be wise to reinforce their competitive advantages in global aerospace power.” Be sure to read this one to get up-to-date on this rapidly evolving issue.
Everyone will watch the future battlefield
By Robert Haddick
Everyone paying attention to the war in Ukraine has seen satellite images from private sector satellite constellation operators such as Maxar and Planet. Before the Russian invasion on February 24, citizens around the world saw vast assembly areas where hundreds of Russian tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, cannons, and trucks were parked like a Saturday morning at a Walmart parking lot. After the war began, viewers saw satellite images of stalled Russian military convoys stretching for forty miles north of Kyiv.
Until recently, such images were restricted to top military and political leaders since they then came from a handful of exquisite and secretive military satellites. But rapid changes in space technology have dramatically lowered the cost and size of powerful imaging and communication satellites. At the same time, private sector companies such as SpaceX have reduced the cost of placing satellites in low earth orbit by up to ninety percent.
The implications of these trends for future military operations will be profound. Military operations will be visible and transparent to all in near real time, making operational and tactical surprise much more difficult to achieve.
Future satellite constellations, composed of hundreds or even thousands of small satellites, will make counter-space operations very difficult, meaning there will be little stopping the “finders” from finding the “hiders.” Finally, the “democratization” of space imaging and communications will increase the pressures on political leaders during future crises, leading to greater crisis instability.
The end of the legacy era of military space operations
According to the 2021 edition of The Military Balance, an annual reference book published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the United States Department of Defense operates 17 imaging satellites and 46 communications satellites. The imaging satellites include those observing the earth on the visible and infrared spectrums plus those employing synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology.
These legacy satellite constellations were designed and deployed when such satellites had to be large and when it was very expensive for a launcher to reach space.
The result is what U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the recently retired vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as “big juicy targets,” a handful of critical assets vulnerable to Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons.
The private sector launches a revolution in space
But over the past decade or so, the private sector, employing emerging technologies for satellites and launch services, has revolutionized the future of imagery and communication satellite constellations.
As mentioned, private firms such as Maxar and Planet Labs have placed in orbit their own constellations of small satellites that image the earth in the visible spectrum, selling their results to both private sector and government clients, including the U.S. Department of Defense.
Even more useful for military purposes are the new constellations of numerous small SAR satellites which can produce finely detailed images of the surface day and night and through any weather.
For example, Capella Space’s SAR satellites have a resolution of just 50 centimeters, fine enough to reveal individual aircraft, trucks, and 20-foot shipping containers at all times (the U.S. Defense Department is a Capella customer). Other private SAR companies entering the market include Umbra, Airbus U.S., ICEYE U.S., and PredaSAR.
Space-based communications links are similarly undergoing a revolution. Elon Musk recently directed his StarLink satellite-based mobile phone system to support the resistance forces in Ukraine.
The StarLink satellite constellation will consist of thousands of small satellites connecting directly to handheld mobile phones on the ground. The satellites will relay data among other members of the constellation with optical lasers and then down to the surface.
These mesh network links will have very high data capacity and will be jam-proof. The U.S. Space Force is about to establish its own modern space-based mesh-network communication constellation which will initially comprise over 300 satellites. We can expect other players to soon enter this market.
Summing up, by the end of this decade we can expect as many private and government satellite constellations as there are currently individual Defense Department satellites. Each of these modern constellations will be comprised of at least hundreds and in many cases, thousand of small satellites, linked in data-sharing mesh networks.
Finally, and crucially, we should expect major adversaries such as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) space forces to establish their own similar imaging and communication satellite constellations.
The revolution in space-based imaging and communications will have profound implication for warfare, beginning soon.
It will be increasingly difficult for significant military forces on the surface to hide. When SAR constellations can produce images with a resolution of 50 centimeters day and night, through all weather, and in near real time, adversaries will monitor and geolocate objects such as surface warships, air bases, and armored battalions continuously.
Combatants will link their imaging networks to intelligence systems powered by artificial intelligence to reveal relevant targeting conclusions from the vast ocean of data received. Intelligence analysts will be able to “run the movie backward” to find where adversary military assets came from.
Countering an adversary’s space capabilities will be very challenging. The Defense Department’s legacy satellite force, consisting of a handful of vulnerable units, incentivized China and Russia to create dangerous counter-space capabilities, such as surface-to-space interceptors and laser “dazzlers” aimed at satellites’ sensors.
The new satellite constellations will expand the number of targets from a handful to thousands of satellites, assembled in self-healing mesh networks. Constellation operators will be able to quickly replace damaged units with new satellites launched from mobile launchers. As a result, counter-space forces will struggle to stay relevant against the new large and distributed constellations.
Combatants will link this imaging-communications-intelligence network to long-range precision strike missiles, the costs of which are also dropping even as their accuracy and lethality increase. The result will be integrated battle networks spanning whole regions. The U.S. Department of Defense is assembling its own regional and global version of this meta-system, with the PLA also in the chase.
The ”democratization” of space imaging will create new pressures on political leaders during crises. During a hypothetical future crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the public will observe the buildup of China’s invasion force in real time, just as policymakers at the White House and Pentagon will. The public will watch as not just Taiwan but U.S. military bases in the western Pacific Ocean come under increasing threat.
Any president who waits for China to strike first could suffer severe political consequences after the fact when the public was able to observe the unfolding story in real time. We should expect decision-makers in Beijing to feel the same pressure in this scenario. The result for both sides will be an overwhelming pressure to strike first, with dangerous consequences for crisis stability.
Winners, losers, defense strategy implications
The emergence of these integrated sensor-communication-missile networks will create winners and losers on future battlefields. Among the losers will be surface warships which will be unable to hide from constant SAR tracking and which will be vulnerable to massed volleys of anti-ship missiles.
China’s anti-ship missile engagement zone now extends about 3,000 kilometers from China’s coast, exceeding the combat radius of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier-based aircraft. Fixed army and air force bases within an adversary’s missile engagement zone will be similarly vulnerable.
Concentrating military power at fixed locations, as Russia did prior to its invasion of Ukraine and as the United States now does at a few island bases in the western Pacific, will invite devastating preemptive attacks during crises.
Military forces possessing long-range strike systems and capabilities, based outside an adversary’s missile engagement zone, will be better positioned to adapt. The good news is that the U.S. Air Force, with its globe-spanning bomber forces, possesses the capability to attack from long range. The bad news is that the United States neglected the modernization of its bomber forces for much of this century and is only now scrambling to catch up with the B-21 Raider program.
Adapting to the new battle networks will favor military forces that are flexible, mobile, speedy, and that can operate effectively in small, dispersed, yet coordinated units. These are attributes that well-trained air and space forces can possess.
In addition, a combatant possessing flexible, mobile, and long-range striking power will reduce its vulnerability to preemption, thus increasing crisis stability. We can expect the importance, even the dominance, of coordinated air and space military power to further increase in the emerging military-technical era.
Fortunately, air and space power are enduring technological, industrial, and organizational competitive advantages possessed by the United States and many of its allies. These advantages will be critical to cope with the challenges China and Russia will present on future potential battlefields. When planning and funding their defense strategies and investments, U.S. government and allied leaders will be wise to reinforce their competitive advantages in global aerospace power.
About the Author
Robert Haddick is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Air Force Association. He is the author of the second edition of Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, which Naval Institute Press will publish this summer. Robert is also the Director of Research at Champion Hill Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Chapel Hill.
The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.
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