On Oct. 17, the Air Force's mysterious X-37B reusable unmanned spacecraft landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base after almost two years in orbit. The X-37 is arguably the pinnacle of the United States' space technology, demonstrating the key metric of reusability that will help to ensure lowered costs and increased capabilities for years to come. It will operate on a frontier that will only become more crucial with increased technology and a battlefield that utilizes the space above our atmosphere. It also represents the seriously flawed logic of current U.S. space infrastructure that could spell tragedy rather than victory if any symmetric threats are faced by our military in the near future.
A key argument in favor of the reusability of space infrastructure is cost. It makes sense that a portion of a rocket goes into fixed costs that could be minimized if spread over a number of missions. What this fact fails to take into account, however, is the physical difficulty of reentering Earth's orbit. In fact, reentry is perhaps the single most difficult aspect of space missions that we have ever encountered. Assuming one does not have a payload that must reenter the atmosphere (for example, a human), it is easier to eventually have said payload naturally destroyed through reentry or simply "turned off."
This fact is only more valid when considering that payloads designed for space are decreasing in cost. It's not uncommon to see universities design modular cubesats for particular experiments. Expensive space infrastructure that seeks to perform a multitude of missions with a single craft only ensures that in the event of a failure, the replacement of such a craft is difficult to near impossible. After all, the imperfect nature of space flight was recently demonstrated by the failed Antares rocket launch and the tragic Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash.
Despite this fact, U.S. space policy continues to operate under the "bigger and better" approach to the design of infrastructure. Most U.S. communications satellite constellations still contain fewer than 20 orbiting assets — all key toward the functionality of the overall constellation. The most robust still number fewer than 30, with between six and 10 visible satellites available at any one time. This trend only seems to be continuing with the Department of Defense's (DOD) upgraded Wideband Global SATCOM constellation having only nine satellites planned.
The bigger and better policy defining our space infrastructure is not without its risks. Increasingly bellicose nations like China have conducted multiple anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) tests. While satellites might not be the single-most pressing concern in the event of an all-out war, there are those who believe these measures could be used as a preemptive attack depending on geopolitical conditions at the time. How does this fact relate to the bigger and better policy? One word: robustness.
Without branching into too many potential scenarios and too much of the physics behind orbits, certain types of potential attacks could wipe out vast swaths of key communications constellations in a single blow. The number of these satellites that could be destroyed in a single attack is directly affected by the number of satellites in the constellation. To put it simply, the more satellites the U.S. has in a particular constellation, the more robust the constellation. By striving for bigger, better and stronger satellites with limited resources, the number located in a single constellation is diminished.
So how can these two concepts, cost and robustness, be reconciled to solve this dilemma? Fortunately, they work in concert with one another. A more robust system of space infrastructure is one that can be achieved through a larger number of smaller, less expensive satellites. There is little evidence to show that this small and more disposable policy would have negative consequences in terms of capabilities. As an added benefit, the failure of one or more in this constellation system could be rectified through the now less-burdensome launch of another identical satellite with greater ease and speed. The end result of this policy is the sustainability of space infrastructure so critical to various diplomatic and military programs.
Federal programs based in all branches of the armed services and throughout various government agencies must prioritize the creation of this sustainable space infrastructure system. Too frequently, U.S. assets in space are taken for granted, either due to distance or the prevalence of technology in the modern era. Few realize how tenuous our connection to many of these technologies is, in a large part due to the fragility of those assets in space. Working to stabilize these systems is a key step in U.S. national security for symmetric and asymmetric threats faced in the coming years.
Dobkin is a defense technology and national security analyst with a background in government relations and strategic communications. He currently serves as the CEO of the Kant Institute, a bipartisan national learning and education organization. He was previously a fellow for the American Security Project. Follow him on Twitter @AdinDobkin.