‘Proliferation Everywhere’: How Space Force Will Answer New Threats

Revelations that Russia is developing a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon made headlines earlier this month, posing threats to military and civilian satellite constellations.

The Space Force aims to counter that risk by doubling down on its “proliferation” strategy, which thus far has been led by the Space Development Agency, which plans to launch more than 400 satellites in the next five years. In the future, however, the USSF will need to expand into other orbits, including seldom-used orbits, to ensure resiliency, said the Space Force’s lead acquisition executive, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition Frank Calvelli.

Asked if the Pentagon was betting too heavily on its LEO satellite constellations and “putting too many of our eggs in that basket,” Calvelli answered that “proliferation in LEO is one approach to resiliency” among others.

Clementine G. Starling and Mark J. Massa, both of the Atlantic Council wrote last week that “a kinetic attack from Earth on any single small satellite would be highly inefficient. But a nuclear attack presents a wider problem.”

They continued: “A nuclear detonation in space would add significant radiation to orbits used by a number of U.S. military satellites, causing them to degrade in the weeks and months following the detonation unless they are specifically hardened against radiation.” 

Maj. Gen. Michael Traut, head of German Space Command, said at the recent Munich Security Conference that “if somebody dares to explode a nuclear weapon in high atmosphere or even space, this would be more or less the end of the usability of that global commons.” 

Calvelli hinted at Space Force expansion into medium-Earth orbit as well as in geosynchronous orbit, where its largest satellites have traditionally operated. 

“I’m an advocate of proliferation everywhere,” Calvelli said. “I think we should be proliferating more in MEO, we should be proliferating more in GEO as well. And so I think we’re taking the first steps through SDA in proliferation of LEO, but I also see us proliferating more at other orbits and trying strange orbits too, as well.” 

LEO is considered any orbit up to 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Earth; MEO and GEO cover vast swaths of space extending some 35,000 kilometers out from the Earth. The number of satellites in LEO has exploded in recent years, and now includes about 8,000 satellites. By comparison, MEO (about 200) and GEO (about 500) are far less populated. 

Traditionally, the high cost of launch has been a factor, but Calvelli noted that “the launch environment has changed so much” in recent years. Established providers ULA and SpaceX, which are able to reach all orbits, are lowering their pricing, and newer providers like Rocket Lab, Firefly, and Blue Origin are entering the market, creating more competition and launch capacity.