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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe AmericasSmall Satellites: The Implications for National Security

Small Satellites: The Implications for National Security

Author: Nicholas Eftimiades

Affiliation: Forward Defense Practice of the Atlantic Councils Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

Organization/Publisher: Atlantic Councils Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

Date/Place: May 2022/USA

Type of Literature: Report

Number of Pages: 36

Link: Implications_for_national_security.pdf


Keywords: Space Policy, National Security, Small-Satellite Revolution, USA




This report discusses the United States’ ability to control space and its impact on national security. The author argues that the maintenance of this supremacy and control must be accompanied by fundamental cultural, ideological, and operational changes to its multifaceted relationship with the commercial space industry. The author believes that commercial satellites will almost entirely occupy space in the coming years, requiring the development of sensing, communication, and information gathering capabilities. This predicts the emergence of a new space system.


Competing in this changing environment requires the United States to make fundamental changes to its defense acquisitions, research and investment strategies, data classification and distribution, and the commercial space regulatory environment. This report examines the pros and cons of developing small commercial satellites. Several companies and government agencies plan to serve satellites in orbit and remove orbital debris, which has dual-use concerns. Some companies have more ambitious plans to operate in the lunar space region and develop resources on the moon. The author notes that no commercial satellite company has proven itself and its capabilities without government support, but this is likely to change as these companies expand and dominate the space industry in the coming years. In the first chapter, the author discusses how the large number of commercial satellites scheduled to be launched in the coming years, relative to earlier in the space age, represents a revolution for small satellites. As of 2021, there are over 7,389 satellites in orbit, with 4,084 operating and 3,305 inactive. In 2021, the number of active satellites had already increased by 27.9 percent. Small satellites made up 75 percent of spacecraft launched from 2011 to 2020, and 94 percent of spacecraft launched in 2020.


In this report, the author argues that the increasing number of commercial satellites being launched in the coming years will have a significant impact on space control and national security. They suggest that the United States must adapt its defense acquisitions, research and investment strategies, data classification and distribution, and commercial space regulatory environment in order to compete in this changing environment. The author also notes that the growing number of commercial satellites presents challenges in space situational awareness, space traffic management, and threat detection, identification, and characterization. They suggest that partnering with commercial actors in developing small satellite capabilities could benefit US national security interests.


The average production and launch costs of small satellites are up to 90% lower than those of larger satellites. Because production and launch costs per unit for small satellites are much lower than for larger satellites, systems in orbit can be replaced as more advanced technology becomes available. Constellations of hundreds of satellites are changing the targeting dynamics of US and foreign anti-space capabilities. It is easier for a foreign anti-satellite (ASAT) capability to attack a single large target than hundreds of smaller targets.


The author discusses the potential risks of small commercial satellites being used as weapons or undetected reconnaissance platforms by other countries, which could pose significant threats to US security in space. This highlights the dual-use nature of space technology, as small satellites can be used for both commercial and military purposes. The United States will face significant challenges in securing the use of commercial capabilities for national security purposes and protecting commercial satellite systems, which are a critical component of US infrastructure, against cybersecurity threats. The deployment of tens of thousands of small satellites connected to global communications further exacerbates these challenges.


In the third chapter, the author examines the challenges faced by the Department of Defense and intelligence community in effectively addressing the growing threat posed by foreign commercial small satellites and their collection capabilities. The author asserts that addressing this challenge requires significant changes to national policies, acquisitions, operational doctrine, and international relations. The defense establishment has prioritized utilizing the capabilities of small commercial satellites without adequately addressing this threat.


In Chapter four, the author discusses the importance of civilian space operations to national security and how they will be impacted by small satellite applications. The author identifies three specific areas of civilian space operations that are particularly vulnerable to the microsatellite revolution: space traffic management, organizational systems, and in-orbit mission authority.


In the final chapter, the author provides a series of recommendations to stakeholders in US space policy, regulation, international collaboration, and commercial investment. These recommendations aim to improve global space security and support the growth of the US commercial space industry. The author emphasizes the importance of a strong commercial space industry to the United States’ global leadership in space and the security of space systems and national security.


In conclusion, the author argues that it is crucial for the United States and its allies to prioritize the security of space. The author suggests that public-private partnerships and the utilization of commercial small satellites should be central to national space security efforts. The author also notes that traditional defense technology development and acquisitions cannot keep up with the rapid advancements of commercial industries in domain software and satellites.


Critical Commentary:

The development of space technology during the Cold War led to the creation of military applications and a arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the non-military applications of this technology became more important to countries around the world, and targeting it became a new form of conflict among major military powers. Satellites, because of their ability to impact the lives and outcomes of countries, are at the center of this conflict, with their destruction being seen as a hostile military action. It appears that the world is moving towards a new type of war in which “space” will be the primary arena.


Destructive capabilities in this context do not necessarily refer to physically destroying satellites, but also include less aggressive methods such as cyberattacks disrupting the flow of data between satellites and ground stations. For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway disrupted the operation of NASA’s Landsat satellites for 12 minutes. In 2019, hackers accessed the agency’s Terra Earth satellite and did everything except issue orders. It is unknown who was responsible for the attack, though some experts speculated that it may have been China.


The United States has much at stake in the realm of space security. A report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency highlights that China and Russia have restructured their military forces to prioritize space warfare. This comes at a time when the US feels that it has lost its dominance in space and that its satellites are vulnerable to attacks. To address this issue, the US must not only make its satellites more resistant to various types of attacks, but also create a large network of inexpensive satellites in low Earth orbit that can be used to control nuclear weapons.


In light of the competition between major powers over space that could potentially escalate into a global war, and the lack of a legally binding framework to govern this competition, the only solution lies in the willingness of major countries to show political resolve, as was the case during the Cold War. This was the only way to prevent conflict in space.

By: Taqwa Abu Kmeil, CIGA Research Assistant



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