The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

space warfare illustration
The future of military space probably does not include laser battlestations as depicted in this 1980s-era Defense Intelligence Agency illustration of Soviet spacecraft. (credit: Defense Intelligence Agency)

SpaceWar 2057

The now almost forgotten and underrated 1985 movie Real Genius started with a scene of a military spaceplane equipped with a powerful laser that could assassinate world leaders standing outside of their villas. In the (lousy) 1979 movie Meteor both the United States and Soviet Union had developed orbiting nuclear-armed battlestations capable of firing missiles at the Earth. Much more recently, but no less fictitiously, numerous newspaper and magazine articles have discussed the so-called “rods from god” concept of satellites equipped with heavy tungsten rods that could be tossed down from space to smash an enemy (preferably Osama bin Laden) on a moment’s notice. All of these ideas are futuristic, but none of them reflect what military space programs will look like fifty years from now.

If you want to know what military space will look like in 2057, look at an iPhone.

With an iPhone you can access a map, convert it to satellite photography, and overlay embedded information like addresses and telephone numbers and soon all kinds of additional data like property values and even crime statistics. Eventually this kind of power is going to reach the average soldier in the field, drawing upon satellite data like GPS signals, near-real-time reconnaissance imagery, and weapons performance for enemy targets. In fact, a very early predecessor of this technology exists today. Last week Air Force Times reported about a hand-held video player called iRover, for Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, which can receive reconnaissance video from unmanned Predator reconnaissance aircraft.

If you want to know what military space will look like in 2057, look at an iPhone.

Advances in electronics are occurring much faster than advances in space technology, and consumer electronics are advancing much faster than military electronics. Thus, the major improvements in military space programs will occur at the microscopic level—and on the ground—rather than on satellites in the sky. Unfortunately for the military, it is also true that by the time improved electronic capabilities reach the men and women in uniform, the civilian world has already leaped much farther ahead.

This is the likely future for military space: impressive progress in delivering information to the battlefield, but fewer changes in the satellite systems than we would normally expect. The reason has to do with the inherent inertia of large space projects, inertia not imposed by physics, but human beings.

Fifty years of lessons

What we have learned from fifty years of military space operations is that the pace of development is slowing down, and the space component is subject to greater constraints than the ground component. What we have also learned is that revolutionary change now seems less and less likely compared to the past. Fifty years of military space experience can allow us to draw some general conclusions about the principles guiding the development of military space systems. We know that the most important aspect of military space programs is that they are developed by humans, and social, economic, political and even emotional factors will have an effect upon the evolution of military space over the next five decades that will be just as important as the pace of technology development—itself controlled by the decisions that humans make.

The first principle that we can now derive from all of this experience is that the development of space systems takes a long time, sometimes decades.

This was not always so. Early reconnaissance satellites went from first concept to full operation in three years or less. But today it is common for big, sophisticated military spacecraft to take a decade or more to develop, and the time from first proposal to first flight is even longer.

An example is the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite. The US Air Force first began discussing developing an advanced missile warning satellite to replace its Defense Support Program satellites in the late 1970s. After numerous false starts producing an alphabet soup of acronyms, SBIRS was officially approved in 1996, with a plan of producing an operational satellite by 2004. But the first full-up satellite will not fly until 2008, and recent news is that it may not fly until 2009 due to problems with a similar satellite. That’s thirteen years of development time, and nearly three decades from the first declaration of need to the actual fielding of the system.

SBIRS is typical, and there are numerous other examples of satellites initially conceived a decade or even longer before they actually became operational. For instance, GPS was conceived in the late 1960s but not declared operational until the 1990s. Milstar was conceived in the early 1980s but did not have its first launch until the 1990s.

Any military space system initiated today is highly likely to be in service two decades from now, and probably likely to be in service three or even four decades from now in some form.

In some cases these long development times were the result of technological challenges that designers had to overcome, often because military officers demanded more than contractors could deliver and contractors did not admit this. But often there were other, more bureaucratic reasons for the delays. The Air Force today likes to take credit for GPS. But Air Force officials originally fought the program’s development for years because they believed that existing navigation systems were sufficient, and because they were wary of a navigation system that could be jammed. It was not technology alone that slowed down the development time of many spacecraft, it was people, making choices.

This brings us to the second principle of military space systems, which is essentially a corollary of the first: because it now takes so long and costs so much to field a new military space system, the military tends to keep systems operational longer, upgrading them in mostly minor ways and preserving technology that is fundamentally obsolete.

The Defense Support Program missile warning satellites first started launching in 1970. By the time the last one is retired, the basic design will be over four decades old. The satellite’s current sensor technology is essentially a variant of that developed twenty years ago. The first KH-11 real-time reconnaissance satellite was launched in 1976 and, although substantially upgraded over the years, its descendents operating today are not radically different than the original design. GPS has been updated a number of times, but the satellites and their technology have not fundamentally changed since the 1970s.

Combine those two principles—long development times coupled with long operating times of so-called “legacy” systems—and predicting the future of military space over the next several decades becomes somewhat easier, if less exciting: any military space system initiated today is highly likely to be in service two decades from now, and probably likely to be in service three or even four decades from now in some form.

The one constant is change (perhaps)

So what will change? Barring unforeseen technology developments, various space subsystems like power and propulsion will be incrementally improved over the decades. For example, solar cell efficiency has improved significantly in the past decade, increasing the power available to spacecraft. The demand for bandwidth will always outpace the supply, but eventually laser communications will be widely introduced to meet some of that demand and dramatically increase the amount of data that can be transmitted. So future satellites will have more power and more communications capability than today, but probably not radically so, and almost certainly not enough to substantially change what satellites can accomplish—for instance, to equip them with lasers.

The most obvious engine for improvement will be electronics. Moore’s Law describing the steady increase in computer processing power shows no signs of abating, so space systems designed several decades from now will possess hundreds of times more processing capability than today. But the requirement for radiation hardening will put a severe constraint on how much their processing power can improve. By contrast, electronics on the ground will possess thousands, possibly tens of thousands of times more processing capability fifty years from now. The answer to this dilemma, of course, is to put more of the processing capability on the ground.

Satellites will deliver information faster and better refined than today’s versions, undoubtedly eliminating humans from many links in the operating chain. Spacecraft will become more autonomous, perhaps reaching the point several decades from now where they will simply be launched, briefly checked out, and essentially left alone to monitor themselves rather than requiring even sporadic attention from the ground.

Various separate systems will become more integrated, primarily on the ground. Ground terminals will combine imagery with signals intelligence data and any additional information that a soldier may require, like weather reports and terrain assessments. Space and ground systems will not only process data, but contextualize it, automatically adding all kinds of ancillary information—an iPhone for the warfighter.

Future satellites will have more power and more communications capability than today, but probably not radically so, and almost certainly not enough to substantially change what satellites can accomplish—for instance, to equip them with lasers.

What about the satellites themselves? Although military officers desire better coverage, meaning data provided more rapidly and more often, the only way to achieve this is by launching more satellites, and that remains expensive. One way to alleviate this problem is to augment big satellites with smaller, more numerous ones—with an acceptable diminishment in quality. Right now the future prospects for space radar (i.e. a system that can not only take images but also provide tracking data for moving vehicles over large areas of the Earth) remain murky because the cost to achieve even a modest level of capability is high. It seems likely that eventually—eventually possibly being several decades from now—the military will get a space radar system providing a limited all weather surveillance capability over a significant amount of territory. But global all-weather surveillance with virtually no delay is probably not something that will happen in the next fifty years, barring completely unforeseen technology developments.

2057 Will Look a Lot Like 1957

What will military space look like in 2057? It will probably not be fundamentally different from the military space program that exists in 2017—and which is under development right now. And in one major respect it is unlikely to look much different than the space program that was being set in place in 1957.

There are unlikely to be any truly radical new missions in the next fifty years. By 1960 military space leaders had outlined all of the military missions that are still being conducted today: surveillance, reconnaissance, signals intelligence, navigation, communications, meteorology, missile warning and attack. Technology has improved in all of these areas, sometimes radically so, but no fundamentally new missions have been invented in nearly fifty years.

Are there any possible new missions that may be accomplished in the next five decades? The place to start would be to think about things that we can currently do on the ground or in the air and speculate whether these can ever be extended to space. The problem, of course, is the same one that we have always faced: it is easier to think of things than to actually make them happen.

Weapons delivery from space has been possible for decades. What has changed is that it is now possible to precisely deliver conventional weapons onto an enemy. But the cost is prohibitive compared to other forms of weapon delivery such as cruise missiles or bombers, which have the benefit of reusability. Given the cost of putting something into orbit, the goal is to keep it there as long as possible rather than bring it down to hit something. That seems unlikely to change barring a radical decrease in launch costs.

Currently the US military is developing energy weapons for ships and aircraft. Whether these technologies will be successful is unclear at such an early stage. Laser and particle beam weapons—like the opening scenes of Real Genius, or the propaganda art of the Strategic Defense Initiative—have been proposed for space use for decades, but have never progressed very far and still seem unlikely given their fundamental limitations, including the fact that satellites are incredibly soft weapons platforms and therefore vulnerable to attack.

However, military space technology has proliferated since the end of the Cold War. How those newly-acquired space capabilities will affect America’s military space program is very difficult to predict.

However, another possibility is electronic attack from space—jamming, spoofing, or even destroying an enemy’s electronics. This seemed ridiculous only a decade ago, but the latest public revelations about the radar on the F-22 Raptor fighter indicate that its radar can be used as a weapon at long ranges, damaging or at least confusing the ground radars that are searching for the aircraft. Such an application from space may never be practical given orbital dynamics, the power requirements, and the extreme distances to potential targets even from low earth orbit, but it is now at least conceivable that a satellite could be used in such a manner.

The big eye in the sky

There is possibly one kind of revolutionary capability that we can predict several decades out: persistent high-resolution optical and medium-resolution infrared surveillance. Improvements in lightweight, extendable mirrors like that developed for the James Webb Space Telescope, could be combined with a very large launch vehicle, or in-orbit robotic construction, to produce a very large optical system in a very high orbit. A satellite equipped with a 20–30 meter diameter deployable mirror placed into geosynchronous orbit could provide ground resolution of perhaps less than three meters, enough to spot vehicles on the ground. Of course, the farther away from the equator such a satellite has to look, the lower the resolution, and clouds, smoke and nighttime will also limit the system’s effectiveness. Such a big eye in space could never replace reconnaissance satellites in low Earth orbit. But it could provide a limited capability to augment the other more traditional surveillance systems. It could serve as the system that monitors entire regions looking for important things for the higher-resolution systems to focus upon.

The principles of military space system development listed above can be applied to many countries, not simply the United States, although it is the United States that develops the biggest and most expensive—and therefore most problem-plagued—military spacecraft. But, of course, any future projection of military space fifty years from now should address what America’s potential adversaries may be capable of. It is safe to assume that the United States will continue to lead in the development of military space systems, as it always has, even while American technological leadership in the commercial world is now frequently challenged. However, military space technology has proliferated since the end of the Cold War. Numerous countries have acquired limited reconnaissance capabilities, few have acquired space radar or signals intelligence capabilities, and fewer still have sought offensive space capabilities. How those newly-acquired space capabilities will affect America’s military space program is very difficult to predict. This is one area where the past fifty years may not tell us much about the next fifty years in military space, and the movies are useless.