By Michael R. Dickey
The U.S. Space Force was established in the midst of, and as a result of, an increasingly complex and dynamic environment that demands new ways of thinking about designing the national security space enterprise. The precepts upon which America’s current and immensely capable architecture was built and matured are no longer valid. The nation’s ability to stay responsive to new military challenges and to harness the force multiplying capabilities of a growing space economy shifts the emphasis from maximizing individual system performance to optimizing overall enterprise effectiveness. These challenges put a premium on flexibility, interoperability and the elements that determine resilience. The Space Force’s operational architecture must value these attributes as much as it values individual system performance in order to achieve warfighting success in the future. The emerging approach of the new service is driving modernization in this direction, building a new space enterprise that can meet the imperative to improve, expand and endure in support of American interests.
The establishment of America’s sixth military service represents not an end in and of itself, but rather the end of the beginning. It marks a recognition that effective operations in, from, and to the space domain are critical to ensuring the protection of U.S. interests and the successful prosecution of modern conflict. Such outcomes for the fledgling Space Force are not pre-ordained. The data and the observables all point to the urgent need, and the opportunity, to pivot the military space enterprise to one that improves and expands its ability to outpace maturing threats to national security objectives.
Success in this endeavor requires a broader consideration of design. Optimizing the performance of a diversified architecture takes on greater importance than maximizing the performance of individual systems. Deliberate focus on architectural-level design attributes for resilience, flexibility, and interoperability must drive the first force design of the new service.
This paper focuses on the operational architecture perspective, understanding the military challenges, their impacts on the Space Force, and the attributes and opportunities available for the Space Force that the nation needs. It speaks in terms of space capabilities, which involve not just satellites but also ground systems, networks, and infrastructure that collectively generate the intended effects.
“The convergence of proliferating technology and competitive interests has forever re-defined space…”
–General Jay Raymond, 1st Chief of Space Operations
The military challenges can be conceived across three dimensions: performance, sufficiency, and persistence.
First, U.S. space capabilities must improve. Traditional roles for space in support of terrestrial forces are becoming increasingly difficult. The inexorable advance of military technology and tactics means that missiles in flight are getting harder to track, surface targets are using concealment and mobility to complicate targeting, and decision cycles are becoming compressed due to increased velocity in both the physical and information domains.
Second, U.S. space capabilities must expand. Some military missions traditionally accomplished by terrestrial forces—for example, persistent tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)—are highly vulnerable and, in the context of conflict with near-peers, infeasible. This is driven primarily by increasingly effective means to deny direct access to important military objectives. Adversaries’ reach and lethality in modern air defense systems and long-range interdiction of maneuvering elements create risk for America’s expeditionary forces. In time, these missions will seek the (relative) safety of Earth orbit to ensure that U.S. military forces can, at least temporally, pierce the defense in-depth veil in order to command and control the battle. Reflecting on the slope of change over the past 60 years, one can contemplate even more military missions using the space domain, to include the rapid, global deployment of materiel and the Air Force’s concept for an intuitive sensing grid.
Third, U.S. space capabilities must endure. As if these challenges were not bad enough, now they’re shooting at us. The “bullets” can come in many forms. They can be cyber bullets, aimed at our infrastructure, data, and C2 networks. They can be bullets of RF energy designed to jam or spoof the signals that allow U.S. forces to communicate with certainty and to navigate with precision. They can be bullets of light attempting to blind or to damage United States and allied sensors and spacecraft. Or, of course, they can be simply bullets, kinetically attacking assets in orbit or on the ground. As is often said, “the enemy gets a vote,” and as their capabilities change, so must the ability of the U.S. military to operate while its space enterprise is under fire.
How Did We Get Here?
“In traditional warfighting systems, the concentration of so much capability onto a single platform might not make military sense; but the lack of a direct threat to the system reduced the consequences of that decision.”
Space: Disruptive Challenges, New Opportunities and New Strategies
The military first went to space to support strategic stability in the context of a bipolar, Cold War world. America’s first spy satellites kept a watchful eye on military developments within denied areas. Deployment of missile warning systems for attack notification and corresponding development of highly secure communications to connect the President with the nation’s nuclear forces became critical to successful nuclear deterrence for almost 50 years. As America’s focus shifted to non-peer adversaries, particularly three decades of conflict in Southwest Asia, U.S. strategic space assets were pressed into use for tactical applications. For example, strategic missile warning assets were called upon to watch for short-range SCUD missiles, and strategic command and control capabilities began to support more robust, anti-jam, tactical communications.
Over time, the Department of Defense (DOD) established requirements and developed new versions of old satellites that aggregated more and more capability onto its strategic systems. With mission costs running high (satellites plus launch plus ground segments), decision makers valued packing more and more performance into incumbent programs. This capability creep had the effect of creating small numbers of capital assets, and driving fragile constellations, high costs, erosion of the industrial base, and operational vulnerability. This has been a long-recognized and unwelcome feature of the current national security space architecture that, in a contested domain, creates untenable and often asymmetric vulnerability for American terrestrial forces and the nation’s security.
Meanwhile, the nascent commercial space economy of the 1970s grew significantly and underwent a shift in character, driven by market forces and technology advances. Rapidly falling prices for launch services and the miniaturization of technology embodied in the rise of the cubesat opened the door to new service-oriented offerings. Space was, and still is, a capital-intensive endeavor. Many are still spooked by the ghosts of the intense boom/bust cycle of the 1990s. Only two of the dozen or so low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications constellations envisioned during that time survive today, and the path for both went through bankruptcy-induced restructuring. Nevertheless, this period resulted in significant business transformation of the industry. Gone are the government-backed, satellite communications corporations of those early years. In their place is a more vibrant, agile, services-oriented model, feeding a growing global population that is hungry for connectivity and information.
The demand for new space-enabled products and services motivated private capital investors to build the space economy at a staggering rate, with more than $160 billion invested in companies and technologies since 2009. This is manifesting itself, as an example, in revenue with growth in remote sensing services up roughly 10% per year since 2012. Investment giant Morgan Stanley estimates that, when services are combined with manufacturing, launch, and other elements, both public and non-public, the global space industry could generate $1 trillion of annual revenue by 2040. This commercial promise is now what drives private investment in space research and development, resulting in smaller form factors, higher capability, lower launch costs, and better decision-making through data analytics. Even though not all of the “new space” companies will survive with a sustainable business model, the advances they have secured prove that low-cost manufacturing techniques, reusable launch, and proliferated constellations can have far-reaching consequences for national security.
The emerging space economy and its increasingly exquisite space-enabled goods and services have resulted in a space domain that is ever-growing in complexity, with multiple actors advancing their own self-interested objectives and creating a complicated mix of security and economic implications. This complexity is fueled by market forces that are rapidly driving down the technology and cost barriers to operating in space, bringing more sovereign and non-sovereign actors into the environment. This creates not only security challenges, but opportunities as well.
Implications for Force Design
“…in highly complex and unpredictable environments, it is generally a superior long-term strategy to develop capabilities that are inherently better at effectively responding to future changes than to keep trying to develop capabilities based on today’s best guess.” 
– Dr. Erin Ryan, “Principled Design vs. Designing for Principles”
So how does America’s newest military service meet the imperative for the national security space architecture as articulated above to improve and to expand its space capabilities in ways that will endure through the rapidly maturing threats that it faces?
Part of the answer must be to shed the plodding and constraining space capability development paradigm of old. The long process of developing and validating requirements creates only “today’s best guess” of the future operating environment. Requirements validation feeds another multi-year process of creating and funding time-intensive development programs. Program-centric focus then yields capital assets concentrated on fixed requirements amid closed, system-centric architectures. These solutions are not responsive to the threats that the nation faces, nor are they conducive to taking advantage of the opportunities being presented by a dynamic commercial and technology environment.
The operational need for resilience requires a new approach to designing the national security space architecture. An oft-cited 2015 Department of Defense space policy white paper posited some of the possible aspects of space system mission assurance. The paper identified six attributes that, when artfully employed in force design decisions, could serve to increase the inherent resilience of space systems. These attributes are disaggregated, distributed, diversified, protected, proliferated, and deceptive.
Taken together, these characteristics serve to “spread out” the delivery of capability and complicate adversary calculus at all levels of war. The capability can be “entangled” with those of allies and neutral actors to give pause to attack decisions. Hybrid architectures can eliminate the vulnerability to any single threat vector and, appropriately designed, can ensure that the loss of any single node does not result in operationally critical loss of U.S. advantage.
The lessons of the commercial world are relevant here. Creators of products and services are always under competitive threat and must constantly adapt, react, and add value to ensure the continued resilience of their offerings. In the 21st century information economy, this takes the form of frequent updates and upgrades, enabled by standards-driven, open-system architectures and constant customer interaction. As space systems evolve to be more defined by software interactions than they are by hardware, the military can employ these same techniques to stay abreast of technology and ahead of the threat. While the tools and skillsets of the Industrial Age created America’s initial advantage in space, the nation must now adopt the tools and skillsets of the Information Age to sustain and extend that advantage.
So now, as one thinks about the pivot from today’s vulnerable position to a combat effective operational architecture, one can add two more attributes that must be considered: interoperability and flexibility. Interoperability implies the degree to which integrated capabilities can be provided by separately developed systems or services, especially when they were not designed to do so at the outset. Flexibility suggests the degree to which existing capabilities can readily accommodate change or can be easily modified in response to change.
This shift in how one thinks about architectural design is informed further by recently published work, Principled Design vs. Designing for Principles. It recognizes that the current practice of establishing fixed requirements and aggressively managing to them over a lengthy development cycle is the bureaucratic equivalent of shooting behind a fleeing target, due to the complexity, uncertainty, and dynamism inherent in space competition. Instead, achieving the necessary performance while adhering to the key attributes can yield an architecture that accommodates change and is less susceptible to falling behind evolving environmental factors and threats.
The design of the Space Force operational architecture must value these attributes of resilience, interoperability, and flexibility as much as it values individual system performance, if it is to achieve warfighting success in the future. The Department of Defense can, and does, design amazing satellites that meet and exceed system performance requirements; but, without equal consideration of the performance of the enterprise as a whole, it cannot fulfill the imperative to improve, expand, and endure.
So, the elements are now in place to describe the force that America needs. We start with the most formidable national security space enterprise in the world. But we have the imperative to improve, expand, and endure against a robust and maturing spectrum of threats amid a complex and growing mix of actors operating in the domain. We can leverage the engine of capitalism that is rapidly generating new products, new services, and a space economy that is independent of direct government interaction. Finally, we have architectural attributes that, if properly incorporated, will ensure we can adapt to change, whether that be driven by threat or by opportunity.
What to Expect
“…we [will] transition to a resilient architecture able to mitigate attack, assure capabilities, and rapidly reconstitute…”
– General Jay Raymond
The application of these architectural design factors is evident in the way the Space Force plans to re-tool the military space enterprise. In any near-peer conflict, the service will be supporting three simultaneous fights: the theater fight in a geographic area of responsibility; strategic overwatch in preparation for nuclear escalation, should it come; and the contest for space superiority in support of both. Each of these fights will have unique considerations and opportunities for applying the architectural design principles described above.
The Theater Fight. It is both a feature and a strength that America fights wars with coalitions, and this extends into the space domain. Theater conflict will look like an interoperable hybrid architecture of government-owned and -operated systems mixed with coalition resources and commercial services to generate surge capacity and to ensure resilience. The same factors enabling commercial growth are allowing allies to participate in space security activities in a more consequential fashion, and nations beyond the traditional “Five Eyes” partnership, such as Norway and Japan, will soon be providing important capability.
Likewise, there are activities where military interests and commercial interests align, and opportunities exist for meaningful commercial integration to support national security. One example is high-throughput satellite communications. Service providers are able to monetize spectrum re-use by creating hundreds of narrowly focused spot beams. The military can leverage this approach to improve jam resistance. Robust communications will rely on diversification across government, allied, and commercial paths with interoperability at the network layer to sustain traffic to the highest priority activities. Flexible terminals and gateways will provide access across a number of disparate frequencies and waveforms. Government and commercial transport layers in low Earth orbit will reduce latency for battle management activities that migrate to space.
As commercial ventures implement mass production and deploy large constellations, the Space Force will either capitalize on these services directly or develop military-specific constellations using these concepts from the new space economy. Operational weather support will be both distributed and diversified, taking advantage of smaller sensors, smaller satellites, and coalition partnerships that feed interoperable cloud-computing algorithms for terrestrial and space weather prediction. Persistent tactical ISR will capitalize on proliferated commercial remote sensing to provide battlespace awareness and change detection, allowing government systems to support kill-chain closure.
The Strategic Fight. In support of the original, no-fail strategic missions—missile warning and nuclear command and control—the United States will retain government systems with some allied support. These systems will be disaggregated to unencumber them from requirements that are best suited to other systems. These systems will have high levels of protection and modest proliferation, and will be diversified across orbits to provide the best mix of resilience and performance. Tracking of adversary missiles in flight will include sensing elements closer to the Earth in order to improve performance and to eliminate vulnerability to single threat vectors. The supporting ground systems and link layer will be interoperable and distributed to ensure that all generated information is available to decision makers, even at this highest end of the conflict spectrum. Positioning, navigation, and timing signals will emanate not only from a more protected and distributed Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation in the near term, but also from other diverse sources and orbits, offering potential interoperability with trusted systems of U.S. allies.
The Space Superiority Fight. Fundamental to military operations in any domain is awareness and understanding of any relevant factor within the domain. The Space Force requires a robust space domain awareness (SDA) infrastructure to monitor the environment and to make sense of the activities of allies, neutral actors, and potential adversaries. But the militarily relevant volume of space is vast. Almost 300 planet Earths by volume can fit between the planet’s surface and geostationary orbit, and humankind is expanding that volume by an order of magnitude into cislunar space. Fortunately, this is an area where U.S. allies have some indigenous capability and where there is a nascent commercial market. Interoperability will allow the Space Force to ingest information from an array of diverse data sources to create knowledge about the environment and to assess attribution and intent of actions that don’t comply with established norms. The service is building a mix of government-owned space- and ground-based sensors as well as integrating the troves of information offered by allies and commercial ventures to contribute to DOD’s awareness of the space domain. The force will also need multi-domain defensive and offensive options to ensure U.S. freedom of action and to protect joint and coalition forces. Similar architectural attributes must be applied to the development of these systems.
If the Space Force’s orbital architecture is the heart of success for America’s strategic and tactical warfighters, its brain is the integration of humans and machines on the ground to rapidly assess, decide, and execute the actions necessary to succeed. The transformation of the ground segment is arguably the most revolutionary aspect of the current modernization. The systems that enable command and control (C2)—the “nervous system”—must allow joint space commanders to manage the three fights (theater, strategic, and space superiority) simultaneously. To succeed against a near-peer adversary, joint commanders will need to fight together as a single integrated enterprise, breaking down mission stovepipes for improved resilience and agility. Central to this integration is an interoperable “unified data library” (UDL) that collects both real-time and processed data, making it available through multiple automated information systems at all relevant security levels. Units dedicated to the protection of these ground engines and the UDL will allow the ground segment to fight through attempted cyber disruption.
Tactical space operations are provisioned using common enterprise ground services that provide two-way communications across the architecture, through a diversified mixture of dedicated DOD and leased commercial transmit/receive services. This structure allows the ground segment to remain flexible, testing and rapidly implementing new capabilities to respond quickly to new threats or to requests from operators to enhance their effectiveness. The ability to stay agile on the ground is enabled by implementing open system designs and integrated development, security, and operations, or “DevSecOps.” Open systems with well-defined interfaces, standards, and protocols allow the space C2 infrastructure to integrate into the concept of joint, all-domain command and control (JADC2).
With governments becoming a smaller fraction of space-launch demand, the Department of Defense must take advantage of commercial innovation in the launch and logistics markets, and ensure that its systems are interoperable. Minimizing government-unique interfaces provides additional flexibility to re-prioritize missions based on military need. The Space Force can also anticipate a need for on-orbit logistics support for which interoperability will be the critical enabler. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has established a consortium to develop technical and safety standards for servicing operations. The Space Force is re-tooling the launch ranges to provide more flexibility to manage a faster cadence among a mix of range customers. These near-term improvements set the stage for longer-term, more combat-responsive launch and logistics to increase the flexibility of the DOD’s orbital force structure.
The military’s newest service has its work cut out for it. Dramatic change in the complexion of the space environment creates opportunity for conflict but, conversely and simultaneously, for strengthened stability if the Space Force can reinvent the military space enterprise. The opportunity is at hand. Technological advances, driven largely by the new commercial space economy instead of defense research and development, can be embraced. These can come in the form of direct procurement of services, hybrid architectures, or adoption of new technology and manufacturing practices into government systems. But the Space Force must take care not to adopt these advances in the same rigid and singular adherence to pre-determined performance requirements. They must instead be employed with key architectural attributes in mind up front. These attributes will make the new Space Force enterprise effective in performance, resilient to attack, and conducive to change. One year into the nation’s newest military service, these changes are already beginning to appear in architectural decisions being made by its leaders. Coupled with a parallel urgency to prepare the culture, doctrine, and training to employ this new architecture, this is a bold start to ensure that space capabilities improve, expand, and endure to achieve America’s security interests.
Michael Dickey is the U.S. Space Force’s Chief Architect and is the director of the Enterprise Strategy and Architectures Office. This paper represents solely the author’s views and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government. If you have a different perspective, we’d like to hear from you.
- An even more comprehensive view of the capabilities of the force also must include the women and men who plan and execute military operations with these systems and the infrastructure that recruits, trains, and supports them. This discussion is limited to the systems themselves. ↑
- John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations’ Planning Guidance, November 9, 2020, 1. https://media.defense.gov/2020/Nov/09/2002531998/-1/-1/0/CSO%20PLANNING%20GUIDANCE.PDF ↑
- For the purposes of this paper, “terrestrial forces” refers to land, maritime, and air forces. ↑
- For a very good unclassified and well-referenced synopsis of counterspace threats from the most capable nation-states, see Challenges to Security in Space, Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence Agency, January 2019. ↑
- Ellen Pawlikowski, Doug Loverro, and Tom Cristler, Space: Disruptive Challenges, New Opportunities, and New Strategies,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2012), 27-54. ↑
- Ibid., 38. ↑
- Two fascinating books about this period for these two companies are Gary Dorsey, Silicon Sky (Basic Books, 1999) about the ORBCOMM system, and John Bloom, Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story (New York, Grove Press, 2016). ↑
- Space Capital, Space Investment Quarterly, Q3 2020. ↑
- Developed from Bryce Space and Technology, State of the Satellite Industry Report, prepared for Satellite Industry Association, June 2020. ↑
- Morgan Stanley Research, Space: Investing in the Final Frontier, July 24, 2020. https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/investing-in-space#:~:text=The%20Global%20Space%20Economy&text=Morgan%20Stanley%20estimates%20that%20the,from%20satellite%20broadband%20Internet%20access. ↑
- One new communications constellation, OneWeb, has been forced to restructure, with its assets purchased for approximately 50% of the initial $3.3B invested. Space News, “OneWeb emerges from Chapter 11 with new CEO,” November 20, 2020. https://spacenews.com/oneweb-emerges-from-chapter-11-with-new-ceo/ ↑
- Erin Ryan, Principled Design vs. Designing for Principles: Rethinking Capability Development for the Space Enterprise, Center for Space Policy and Strategy, October 2020, 2. ↑
- Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy, September 2015. ↑
- The Resilience Taxonomy refers to these as “‘characteristics”’ and uses the noun version of these words but the meaning here is preserved ↑
- Erin T. Ryan, David R. Jacques, John M. Colombi, “An Ontological Framework for Clarifying Flexibility-Related Terminology via Literature Survey,” Systems Engineering, Journal of the International Council on Systems Engineering, Vol 16, Issue 1 (Spring 2013). ↑
- Ryan, Principled Design vs. Designing for Principles. ↑
- Raymond, op. cit., 3. ↑
- The “Five Eyes” security partnership includes Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States. ↑
- Todd Master, Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations, accessed November 11, 2020, https://www.darpa.mil/program/consortium-for-execution-of-rendezvous-and-servicing-operations. ↑