It has been an active start to 2021 for the Department of Defense’s space activities as the Pentagon seeks to build agility, capability and resilience in this increasingly important domain. Increased concentration on space is welcome. However, Pentagon decisions about future priorities, activities and investments should continue to sharpen its focus on the technologies and capabilities required to exploit new architectures and approaches in space.
Moreover, as it identifies these critical technologies — particularly laser communications but others as well — it should prioritize building a robust and resilient domestic American industry to support U.S. activity in a domain that is critical to the future of U.S. military capabilities and national and economic security.
Perhaps the most notable 2021 development so far — and most indicative of the importance of supporting a domestic capability in key technologies — was the Space Development Agency’s February announcement that it will release a request for proposals this summer for the production of 150 small satellites to be placed in low Earth orbit as part of Tranche 1 of the seven-layer National Defense Space Architecture. Tranche 0′s 30 satellites are currently being developed and are expected to be launched early next year.
The Tranche 1 satellites will be part of what will eventually become a 300-500 satellite LEO transport layer that will move data across the architecture. Once finalized, the transport layer will provide “low latency data connectivity; data directly to weapons; and data disseminated to the theatre.” It will serve as the backbone of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control program and future concepts of all-domain operations.
An architecture of hundreds of small satellites proliferated across LEO also provides resilience for a U.S. space infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to an expanding range of counter-space capabilities being developed and fielded by Russia and China.
Success of the National Defense Space Architecture will ultimately rest not only on the ability to get hundreds of small satellites into LEO over the next few years, but also on maturing a set of enabling technologies crucial to optimizing the operational value of this architecture. At the top of the list of these enabling capabilities is intersatellite laser communications, a technology on which SDA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are partnering with U.S. companies, with a demonstration set for June.
General Atomics will launch two satellites equipped with the company’s Laser Interconnect and Networking Communication System, comprised of two satellites each hosting a laser communication terminal payload. In the other test, an SA Photonics payload will be launched on two Astro Digital satellites — known as the Mandrake II satellites — as part of DARPA’s Blackjack program.
These demonstrations will be closely watched, given the importance of optical intersatellite links, or OISL, to the future of the U.S. space-based architectures. An April report from the Atlantic Council, titled “The Future of Security in Space,” assesses laser communications to be a “keystone” technology for U.S. space ambitions and highlights the multilayered value that laser communications provide over radio frequency communications, noting that “the continued development of laser communication will allow for satellite constellation growth, increased data throughput, and greater security.”
The ability of OISLs to deliver more bandwidth, more security and less latency has led SDA to identify the technology as “one of the most critical technologies required to be demonstrated for Tranche 0.”
SDA and the DoD should be commended for investments in LEO architectures and especially free space laser communications, though there remain challenges to fully capturing the value OISLs can provide. The DoD should consider now funding the next set of enabling capabilities required to fully capitalize on laser communications and other developing keystone technologies.
For example, the summer tests will demonstrate the ability of OISLs to transmit data between two satellites at various distances. Over time, though, the requirement will mature and involve using OISLs to transfer data between hundreds of satellites in LEO; between satellites in LEO and geostationary orbit; and between satellites and air, ground and sea assets.
The process of identifying which targets in this proliferated architecture to transmit to may slow down the communications process, reducing one of the main advantages these technologies provide. The DoD should consider funding an intelligent, space-based optical router that will allow satellites to rapidly locate and then switch beam direction to communicate with different satellites in the architecture to resolve this challenge.
In addition, the DoD should prioritize engagement with domestic companies developing laser communications and other keystone technologies over suppliers even from allied or partner nations. This is not to dismiss the concept of collaboration with allies and partners on emerging space technologies and capabilities. However, the resilience promised by the proliferated National Defense Space Architecture of small satellites — which will need to be replaced more frequently than larger ones — will not be fully recognized, absent a resilient and reliable domestic capability to provide the core and enabling capabilities that allow the DoD to optimize new and enhanced space-based capabilities.
Tate Nurkin is a nonresident senior fellow with Forward Defense at the Atlantic Council.
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