In this past week’s Space News magazine, Rebecca M Cowen-Hirsch of INMARSAT wrote an op-ed titled “Paving a pathway to Resilient Satellite Operations.” In this editorial she speaks to what she refers to “three essentials of resiliency” which include diversification, distribution, protection. I have commented on these and related topics before but given it is still being advocated for, it remains a topic for debate and discussion.
Resilience has been a buzzword of late in the space policy and strategy arena however its use, in my view has been mis-applied and evolving with time. Merriam-Webster defines resilience in two ways:”the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happen, or the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.” In the space arena, this thought applied to satellites would mean that the constellations or system as a whole should be able to become strong and successful, or return to its original condition after an attack.
It appears that the author of this and other related articles from industry and government, are not thinking of the satellites themselves when they speak of resilience, but of the end effects themselves. By end effects I am referring to things like ground and air vehicles able to navigate with some GPS capability, or bombs hitting their targets, SATCOM phones able to communicate and data on space weather continuing to come to Earth in some form or fashion. They don’t appear to be speaking of protecting the satellites themselves or even the ground infrastructure.
I say this due to reviewing the author’s “essentials of resiliency”…diversification and distribution, while making it a target rich environment in orbit for potential adversaries, does not make it where it is out of the realm of possibility of multi-layered strikes. China has written in numerous documents that space warfare is to be “destructive” and multi-layered so some attacks will be at a lower end of escalation while others will be kinetic or Directed Energy at much higher ends of the space escalation ladder. Thus where Ms. Cowen-Hirch states, “commitment to SATCOM diversity extends a protected state for all” doesn’t really make much sense. Just because commercial satellites serve both public and private sector interests that means that those satellites diversified and disaggregated over multiple nations and companies “muddle the picture” somewhat does not really prevent or protect any of them from attacks. Thus, the argument she poses that “adversaries are less likely to devote their resources to an attempted compromise of commercial systems” is flawed. It is flawed because not every nation or group with access to satellite technology and applications adhere to a view that separates commercial utility from government war preparation. An example would be the Chinese perspective that states in numerous writings that if a satellite is used for warfighting support, regardless if it was intended for commercial use or dual use “peaceful purposes” it becomes a lawful target.
With the deployment of mobile warfare concept space weapons in China (laser and ASAT) not to mention the high energy lasers and reversible means, there are plenty of ways over time to take out satellites and ground systems (using cyber attacks and other means too). I would not consider the fact that some satellites are early targets and some may survive to become later targets as a proof of a “protected state”, I would say diversification and disaggregation as currently defined simply gives more targets to an adversary and provides further incentive to build a more robust “space attack network” to counter these plans and strategies. Then there is the commercial risk factor…why would a nation or company invest billions in contracts for SATCOM from a company with either hosted payloads or contracts to share bandwidth with the DoD only to get bumped off due to national security requirements or due to the destruction or disruption of service by a counterspace strike? it would be interesting to see the analysis of how stockholders, insurance brokers and government financial leaders would view this type of situation?
On a related topic, if this interpretation of satellite resilience is where industry and government leaders are heading, then it creates problems for those that link “space protection” with defense and “sustainability”. How? If the purpose of deterrence is to prevent attacks across the counterspace spectrum from occurring as means to prevent debris fields and further congestion of orbital space, then desiring a resilient architecture means a retreat from sustainability because the goal would be to rely on the “diversification” of satellites despite the growing debris hazards due to the war extending to space. For example. lets say the targets being hit are SATCOM satellites. If some types of UHF satellites were hit and destroyed or even functionally disabled permanently but not necessarily as a debris cloud in their operational plane, more space junk would be generated regardless. They could transfer the workload from one commercial bird to another, move (in some cases) satellites around to fill gaps, etc. However, these backups, replacements or other satellite systems on contract or government owned and operated remain and continue to be vulnerable to future strikes.
So the question becomes: Why do many still believe that resilience is a realistic goal apart from credible space deterrents needed to deter and or prevent said strikes on our critical space infrastructure? Something that will continue to be debated in the months ahead.