Starlink: The Strategic Satellite Solution

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The recent launch of the first two prototype satellites for Elon Musk’s Starlink system marks the first step in the emergence of large constellations of commercial satellites and providing ubiquitous internet coverage over the entire globe. These systems can provide positive, paradigm-shifting effects for both America’s military and foreign policy and should be actively promoted and supported by the federal government.

The Starlink system is a satellite constellation proposed by SpaceX that would build a low-latency worldwide broadband internet system by assembling a massive constellation of thousands of cross-linked satellites in relatively low orbit.  The proposed constellation is designed to overcome many of the hurdles that have hindered widespread adoption of satellite internet: cost, latency and the size of user terminals.

The cost of the communication satellites and the cost to boost them into orbit have been the toughest hurdles to overcome in developing a worldwide broadband internet network.  Today’s communications satellites are essentially custom built for each customer and are launched into high geosynchronous orbits that are expensive to reach.  To provide broadband speeds to large numbers of users, a much larger number of satellites is needed than would be possible using current launchers and satellites.  Elon Musk has said that "[w]e’re going to try and do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets” and “in order to revolutionize space, we have to address both satellites and rockets." SpaceX hopes to reduce the cost by building thousands of identical satellites and boosting them into low orbit, bypassing the higher costs of today’s individually crafted satellites that are boosted into higher, more costly orbits.  SpaceX has envisioned an assembly line for satellites that would produce thousands of modular satellites.  These satellites should also be available to be modified for other uses by slipping compatible modules into the basic satellite bus on the assembly line.  SpaceX’s drive to develop low-cost launch to low earth orbit with the aim to launch multiple reusable rockets per week to drive down costs is most foreseeable way presently available to solve the launch costs problem. 

Current internet systems suffer from latency or signal delay problems due to the enormous distance from a user to a geosynchronous satellite system over which a signal must travel, at least 25,000 miles. The low orbit of the Starlink satellites reduces the distance over which the data must travel to reach a user, which in turn dramatically reduces latency.  The remaining major impediment, the size of the user terminal, is thought to be managed by modern phased array technology with user terminals the size of a pizza box. 

SpaceX is not the only organization to propose such a satellite constellation—others include the OneWeb constellation and a proposal by Samsung.  SpaceX currently is the company most likely to deliver on a satellite constellation in the thousands as it has the most credible path to a low-cost launch vehicle.  A satellite constellation that offers gigabyte per second connections worldwide with little latency using thousands of satellites that are launched on a weekly basis using modular satellites offers many attractive features to the U.S. military, and more generally, for U.S. foreign policy and foreign relations.

The U.S. military has recently expressed an interest in dramatically increasing the availability and speed of satellites communications.  According to a report in DefenseOne, the U.S. Air Force is looking to buy smaller, cheaper spacecraft that “to detect enemy launches, move data and communications, and gather intelligence.”  In an interview with SpaceNews, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command based in Omaha, Nebraska, stated that “[w]e have to get to modular spacecraft where we can take existing government or commercial buses and integrate new payloads.”  Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander, Air Force Space Command, has also reinforced the need to speed up satellite development and deployment in a speech at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium, “[e]xquisite satellites that last for decades, that cost extremely high amounts of dollars, that take years to build with little regard for today’s strategic environment are not that helpful.”

A widespread high-speed communications network with thousands of modular satellites in low earth orbit would provide many benefits to the U.S. military.  With the entire sky offering targets for connections, versus a few points today, such network would be effectively unjammable, as it would not be feasible for an opponent to place jamming equipment in enough locations to jam the entire horizon. This would apply even to heavily built-up urban areas, and mountainous terrain which currently causes havoc with present short range and satellite communications systems.  Also, a ubiquitous, high-speed network allows for the recent developments in cloud and artificial intelligence reach the entire military, down to the individual warfighter. 

The use of a modular satellite on an assembly line allows the same network to provide other services such as weather reporting, signal intercept, imaging and navigation services to replace GPS, and many other payloads.  For example, an inexpensive imaging system can be added to many of the low orbiting satellites and provide the same quality of imaging as the current bespoke satellites operated by the NRO, but with a dramatic increase in the amount of terrain imaged.  Such a system may allow the elimination of many tactical ISR UAV orbits, and truly move satellite imagery from an asset utilized by a small cadre of personnel to being available tactically to every service member.  The information generated from the payloads can be effortlessly streamed to end users utilizing the considerable bandwidth provided by the crosslinked network. 

In another example, the satellites could be used to replace GPS with an effectively unjammable navigation system by distributing miniaturized atomic standards across several hundred satellites that would make localized jamming ineffective by allowing a satellite lock across the entire horizon of the sky.  The sheer number of satellites makes effectively targeting any particular satellite extremely difficult as determining the exact function of each satellite would be difficult.  Also, modular design and associated assembly line would make the replacement of any satellite or series of satellites a seamless and time-effective process.  Because the satellites can be easily replaced, it minimizes the incentive for adversaries to destroy or disable them.

Beyond the military applications, an open, ubiquitous broadband network would provide many benefits that would aid U.S. interests abroad.  Much as the U.S. donation of GPS functionality has revolutionized navigation, and hundreds of related applications worldwide, the U.S. donation of low cost, uncensored, high-speed internet worldwide would be the best foreign policy move since the Marshall Plan.  Because the network will be ubiquitous, no country would be able to ban the network as the associated technical equipment would be hard wired into the backbone of the world economy as GPS has become.  It will allow access by any person, anywhere in the world, to access uncensored information and effectively bypass attempts by authoritarian regimes to control and shape the flow of information such as the Great Firewall of China.  

Access to such a network would also allow American companies to avoid economic pressure from repressive foreign governments.  Apple recently was pressured to turn iCloud data over to state-controlled servers.  Google has been forced to relocate away from China to avoid complying with such laws.  A ubiquitous network that bypassed local internets would allow American companies to effectively compete in such markets without being forced to aid repressive regimes in tracking their citizens.

For these reasons, the American government should actively encourage and fund the development of a low earth orbit constellation of modular, multipurpose satellites that produce a worldwide broadband network, integrate that network into our armed forces, and allow access to the network by citizens worldwide for a low cost.

Jason Blackstone is currently an attorney in private practice related to patents and technical issues.  He obtained an undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University in both Physics and Journalism and a focus on strategic issues and foreign affairs, and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

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