It’s time to rethink how to get the most out of a Space Domain Awareness architecture

It’s time to rethink how to get the most out of a Space Domain Awareness architecture
Buckley SFB Radomes

Radomes providing strategic and theater missile warning for the United States and its international allies, sit at Buckley Space Force Base, CO. Space Delta 4, the missile warning delta, contributes heavily to missile defense, space domain awareness, battlespace awareness and technical intelligence missions in support of Combatant Commanders. (U.S. Space Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. JT Armstrong)

More than ever, the US is relying on its ability to track what is in space. And yet, it is doing so with an architecture that was built for a very different threat. In this oped, Joshua Hartman, a former Pentagon official and House staffer who now leads the firm GEOST, argues that a new focus on space domain awareness. 

Much has been made of the need for greater resilience and protection of US space assets, and with good cause: US government and commercial space systems alike face unprecedented, growing threats. In October, Russian diplomats at the UN openly threatened commercial satellites as “legitimate target(s).” This only a year after Russia recklessly conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) test that destroyed one of its own satellites and littered low earth orbit (LEO) with dangerous debris.

The Commander of US Space Command has said the Space Force does not have the necessary Space Domain Awareness (SDA) data to abate the threat, protect space assets, and ensure continuity of operations in space. He has repeatedly testified that SDA is his “number one priority and number one shortfall” as “SDA helps us analyze, not just identify or catalog, what is occurring in space, which when combined with information from US intelligence agencies, helps develop an understanding of why things are happening, characterize intent, and provide decision advantages to our leaders.”

Despite the sizable and growing threats to space assets, national security space investments have not kept pace with these concerns, nor have they satisfied the need to better understand what is happening in space. Currently, a few high-priced ground-based telescope systems, which are largely single point or stand-alone capabilities, use a disproportionate amount of the Space Force budget in this area. Having a clearer picture of what is happening in and around our space assets is vital to enable deterrence as well as protection of those assets, and need not cost as much as the currently deployed systems.

Now is the time to recognize the gravity of the situation and move to affordably address several aspects of the current SDA architecture.

The first step is to plan and deploy a coherent and integrated SDA construct. Only with such an architecture will the US be able to defend its space assets. The SDA systems used today were procured and fielded in a patchwork fashion and do not provide a coherent understanding of the environment. Few of today’s assets were intended to focus on the SDA mission.

For example, the history of, and support provided by, the US space surveillance network is closely intertwined with US missile warning requirements. Seventy years ago, the primary threat to the US was from Soviet nuclear missiles, making tracking of adversary on-orbit space assets a secondary capability; with such varied threats as exist today, that kind of capability simply isn’t enough.

Space Force operators need a modern, coherent architecture dedicated to SDA that spans across systems and optimizes the contribution between systems to effectively manage space operations. The current SDA infrastructure simply does not address the evolving threat capabilities our potential adversaries have deployed, let alone the ones they are developing. Too much attention has been paid to the flashy but less likely use of kinetic-kill vehicles. Instead, an SDA architecture is needed which addresses the difficult and more likely threats identified by multiple unclassified Defense Intelligence Agency reports: cyber attacks, co-orbital attacks, and directed energy attacks.

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Second, to provide capability affordably and quickly, the architecture must immediately embrace hosted payloads as the core of the Space-based SDA construct. (Disclaimer: my company provides payloads for space domain awareness, missile warning and ISR. Increasing the use of hosted payloads is not a new novel concept and would understandably include open competition among many firms). Every satellite that goes to LEO or Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) presents a low-cost opportunity to be a node in the wider architecture and provide additional SDA data.

The hosted payload solution provides increased persistence, geometry of perspective, and volume of data for pennies on the dollar of the primary mission. Additionally, integrating commercial capabilities into the operational space picture creates tremendous value at low cost. This data is shareable with our allies and alleviates US government systems of doing the dull, repetitive, lower technology-based tasks, freeing Space Force operators for the more dynamic demands of full scope operations in the space domain.

Third, focus on “making sense” of the data and extracting knowledge, an area of the mission where a significant deficit exists. Making data discoverable to the operator appeared Herculean and insurmountable until the creation of the Unified Data Library and the National Space Defense Center. Yet these two successes have not enabled a cogent understanding of how all the disparate systems interact together, nor is there a framework to assess the comparative data value for specific mission threats. Any architecture must enable understanding how radar systems work with radio frequency systems and optical systems across space and ground, and for which mission threads, across the threat environment. Additionally, this architecture provides greater focus on the characterization of objects and their behavior, rather than simply confirming they reside in the right space and time.

Today an opportunity exists to make significant near-term advances by leveraging cost-effective space domain awareness solutions. These solutions must work as an integrated architecture, maximize the use of hosted payloads, and focus on extracting more value from the data. Such an approach will dramatically improve the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community’s ability to provide indications and warning of events in space, establish patterns of behavior, create transparency of behavior, and reinforce deterrence contributing to the elimination of strategic surprise.

Such a holistic and collective US Space Domain Awareness system-of-systems will significantly enhance protection — enabling a range of preemptive operations and countermeasures. But first, we must build it.

Joshua Hartman is the President of GEOST, Inc. He is also a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Intelligence, and former Professional Staffer on the House Appropriations and House Armed Services Committees.