In 2019, shortly after my tenure as director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a Russian satellite began to surreptitiously shadow one of our reconnaissance satellites. At times it edged within 100 miles of our satellite, which is tantamount to tailgating in the space domain. The capabilities and intent of the Russian system remain unclear. Unintentional or not, it was the first time the Department of Defense publicly revealed an adversarial on-orbit threat.
This “close call” also illuminated a distinct vulnerability in our doctrine and planning: We lacked the means to rapidly reconstitute our critical, space-based capabilities. Fortunately, the Pentagon has taken stock and is beginning to lean in. The U.S. Space Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Space Development Agency and others are developing and deploying a resilient space architecture, exploring concepts such as satellite protection, proliferation and redundancy, as well as more fully embracing the innovation of the commercial space sector.
That vibrant, innovative portion of our broader ecosystem is stepping up to the challenge. We are seeing the commercial emergence of highly capable Earth-observation and communication satellite systems in very small platforms.
What’s crucially missing in the equation, however, is a capability that combines the aforementioned space-based systems with a responsive launch capacity.
Much like its objective satellite architecture, the U.S. requires a responsive, resilient, disaggregated launch solution. A “resilient” satellite constellation is of little utility in a conflict if there’s no means to quickly replace it once it’s degraded. Workhorses such as the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX will continue to shoulder most of the launch burden, from fixed locations as part of the national security launch manifest.
However, when time is of the essence to ensure national security objectives are achieved, our national security team — including the DoD and the intelligence community — must also be postured to draw upon a capability that can, from first call, reconstitute lost satellites in a matter of hours or a couple of days.
These are not hypothetical capabilities or research and development projects. Small launch systems and capabilities that are transportable and mobile do exist to meet this strenuous mission demand; indeed, the DoD has already flown payloads on air-launched systems like Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus and on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne this year, and it has incorporated quick call-up launch into some of its most advanced war games and training exercises, such as the Advanced Battle Management System Onramp 2. But the integrated capability and infrastructure needed to take advantage of that capacity to achieve the desired outcome of flexible, unpredictable, mobile replenishment does not.
This isn’t a radical proposition. In fact, it’s embedded in U.S. policy and strategy. The National Defense Strategy directs the DoD to “prioritize investments in … reconstitution [to] assure our space capabilities.” The National Space Policy directs the secretary of defense to “develop … rapid launch options to reinforce or to reconstitute priority national security space capabilities in times of crisis and conflict and that, when practicable and appropriate, leverage commercial capabilities.”
Congress agrees: For the past two years, it has funded, on a bipartisan basis, a tactically responsive launch program to “provide options for on-orbit reconstitution within the space warfighting domain,” which will “enable DoD space domain mission assurance and strategic deterrence objectives.”
After a successful demonstration launch funded by these congressionally directed adds, Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, noted that “during conflict, the ability to rapidly reconstitute degraded systems within hours forces adversaries to rethink the economic benefit of attacking on-orbit assets. This capability allows USSPACECOM to provide warfighters continuous access to space-based capabilities for multi-domain overmatch.”
Unfortunately, and notwithstanding national policy and recent successes, the fiscal 2022 budget request omitted funding for responsive launch. The funds Congress has wisely provided and that DoD has benefitted from for responsive launch are quite modest compared to the billions invested in “traditional” launch. If past is prologue, Congress will once again direct investments in responsive launch in this fall’s appropriations process.
Our adversaries aren’t waiting for us to get this right. The DoD must invest the necessary resources and attention toward standing up a mature, operationalized responsive launch capability. It must conduct a regular cadence of operational demonstrations to develop necessary concepts of operations. It needs to invest in the required infrastructure that enables launch from anywhere, anytime.
This won’t change overnight. The Pentagon is a large ship to steer. But consequential first steps toward this desired end state necessitates establishing a formal program of record for responsive launch in the FY23 budget.
Threats to American satellites are only going to continue to evolve and become more sophisticated. If the U.S. is going to effectively defend against adversaries in future conflicts in space, collaborative action to institutionalize responsive launch must start now.
Robert Cardillo formerly served as director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. He is currently on the fiduciary boards of Planet Federal (as its chair), Enview and Firefly Aerospace.