Every few years—and usually after one of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) big satellite programs runs into trouble—the popularity of small satellites, commonly known as “smallsats,” resurges. Each time, smallsats are advertised as being cheaper, faster to develop, and less complex than their big satellite counterparts. And each time, policymakers’ hopes—that smallsats will be a panacea for the space community—are dashed by institutional reality. That’s because it’s a bad idea to assume that smallsats will solve big satellites’ problems.
Big satellites’ problems are caused by their requirements, interfaces, and complex acquisition organizations. Swapping big satellites for small ones will not address those problems. Instead, defense policymakers should address the well-established, structural issues that affect all satellite programs. Afterwards, they should understand the specific circumstances in which smallsats add value and how they can be used to complement—not replace—big satellites.
Big Satellites, Big Problems
The root cause of many big satellite problems has nothing to do with satellite size. First, big satellites often execute multiple missions and meet stringent performance requirements. For example, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) program executes two distinct missions for separate tactical and strategic user communities. Those user communities specified requirements for leap-ahead capabilities; in fact, a single AEHF satellite provides greater total capacity than the entire five-satellite constellation it replaced.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that smallsats could improve requirements discipline, thereby reducing the cost of big satellites like AEHF. But requirements drive satellite designs—not the other way around. Smallsats are unlikely to match big satellite capabilities for at least ten years. And it’s also unlikely that smallsats will somehow be capable of changing DoD’s requirements processes. Therefore, if DoD wants to use smallsats today, it will need to address requirements first—by making trade-offs and setting reasonable expectations for smallsat missions and performance.
Second, in addition to being costly, big satellites take a long time to develop. While it’s true that smallsats may be developed faster, the schedule bottlenecks in big satellite programs are often on the ground. GAO reports that big “satellites sometimes spend years in orbit before key capabilities can be fully exploited.” For example, GAO found that the Global Positioning System’s (GPS) ground system is five years behind schedule and its user equipment will not complete operational testing until three years after the first GPS III satellite launches. GAO also found that over 90% of the Mobile User Objective System’s (MUOS) capabilities are currently underutilized. Even though all five big MUOS satellites are in orbit, the program’s user equipment is delayed and there are residual problems with space, ground, and user segment integration.
Smallsats will not solve these problems or be immune from them. Furthermore, mega-constellations of smallsats may actually make ground systems more complex, since there will be more satellites to command and control. Therefore, rather than shortening capability delivery timelines, smallsats could increase the schedule required to develop capabilities on the ground. If DoD wants to field space capabilities faster, it should address the true bottlenecks in space programs—which sometimes have nothing to do with the satellites themselves.
Finally, big satellites are often criticized for being too technically complex. Research suggests, however, that technical architectures often mirror the structure of the institutions in which they are developed. In short, institutional complexity begets technical complexity. GAO reports that approximately 60 distinct organizations manage DoD space acquisitions. With responsibility fragmented across so many offices, it’s harder for DoD to trade-off requirements that drive technical complexity because—as GAO found—“no one is in charge of space acquisitions.” Absent reforms that streamline and clarify authority and responsibility in the space acquisition community, it’s a bad idea to assume that smallsats will somehow be immune the institutional complexity that plagues big satellite programs.
Solutions for Satellites of All Sizes
Before reducing satellite size, defense policymakers should first address the well-established, structural problems that affect all satellite programs. Specifically, they should undertake a series of institutional reforms which aim to separate missions, empower program managers to trade-off requirements, improve satellite and ground system integration, and reduce institutional complexity. One strategy for accomplishing these objectives—by aligning missions, satellites, end-to-end architectures, and organizations—is outlined below.
First, DoD should explore opportunities to disaggregate multi-mission satellites by assigning distinct missions to separate spacecraft. For example, analysis shows that disaggregating AEHF’s tactical and strategic missions could reduce cost and decrease technical complexity. An added benefit of mission disaggregation is that it naturally reduces satellite size—resulting in satellites that are smaller than historically big satellites.
Next, DoD should take disaggregation a step further by also disaggregating the program offices that manage multi-mission satellites. For example, hypothetically, if DoD were to disaggregate AEHF, it should use two program offices to manage its tactical and strategic missions separately. The immediate effect of organizational disaggregation is reducing the number of missions for which a program office is responsible. This, in turn, reduces the number of users and stakeholders that have influence over a program. With fewer external organizations involved, program managers will be empowered to make requirements trade-offs and to set reasonable expectations for the satellites they develop.
DoD should also strengthen its ability to integrate across satellites, ground systems, and user equipment. Today, authority and responsibility are spread across multiple programs and military services—making it nearly impossible to keep programs and budgets synchronized. Instead, DoD should consolidate its management of end-to-end mission architectures—from satellites to ground systems and user equipment—under single program offices and streamlined oversight structures. As GAO recommended for GPS, a single decision-maker should have authority over entire architectures and the ability to synchronize across major components.
Finally, DoD should reduce overall institutional complexity by first, decreasing the number of organizations involved in space acquisition and second, by streamlining authority and responsibility along mission lines. With the proposed Space Force, DoD has an opportunity to remake and simplify its space acquisitions; however, it remains unclear whether DoD will actually do so. Instead, DoD has increased institutional complexity by creating the Space Development Agency, an entirely new organization devoted to smallsats, whose overall mission and relation to the Space Force remains unclear.
Problems that Smallsats Can Solve
If defense policymakers implement the solutions described above, they may naturally end up with smaller satellites. DoD, therefore, should prioritize solving the problems that affect all satellite programs before it prioritizes developing smallsats. Tackling big satellite problems is particularly critical because in the near-term, smallsats cannot replace big satellites. As former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stated, “Launching hundreds of cheap satellites into theater as a substitute for the complex architectures where we provide key capabilities to the war fighter will result in failure on America’s worst day if relied upon alone. The analysis shows that.”
If DoD fixes its big satellite problems first, it can next develop smallsats to complement—not replace—its big satellites. Confronted with space-based threats, GAO suggests that smallsats may make it “more difficult for an adversary to decide which assets to attack.” And if adversaries do target big satellites, smallsats could be rapidly launched to reconstitute damaged constellations. In this way, smallsats can complement DoD’s existing overhead architecture by making it more resilient. Smallsats can also generate data that supplements existing constellations at low cost—particularly if DoD refrains from procuring the satellites and buys their data as a service instead.
Although smallsats’ current utility may be limited, their future seems bright—and the defense community and commercial industry should continue developing enabling technology. In the meantime though, it is a bad idea to assume that smallsats will solve big satellites’ problems. To take full advantage of smallsats’ future potential, defense policymakers should first address the well-established, structural problems that affect all satellite programs—including the smallsats that may be in DoD’s future.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army illustration of SMDC-ONE nano-satellite constellation)