As the U.S. military prepares for conflict against threats highlighted in the “2022 National Security Strategy,” all eyes are on the Indo-Pacific theatre of operations in preparation for large-scale combat with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the Spring 2012 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, Everett Carl Dolman wrote, “There is no plausible near-term scenario in which the United States could invade and sustain an occupation of the Chinese mainland.” With over 5,000 miles separating Hawaii from Taiwan, Dolman’s line of logic also applies to the first island chain, an archipelago east of the Asian mainland that includes Taiwan, Japan, and the northern Philippines. The second part of Dolman’s comment focuses on sustainment. With a finite amount of cargo aircraft and ships to transport materiel and the joint force, the DOD needs to create additional distribution nodes or celestial lines of communication to enable a resilient sustainment architecture. The space domain remains completely underdeveloped regarding providing terrestrial materiel support and offers an ideal platform to sustain smaller units of action within the joint force, which would otherwise divert aircraft or naval vessels that could be used to support larger formations. Creating a proliferated satellite constellation in low earth orbit (LEO) to enable space-based logistics negates the need for access basing and overflight, mitigates the need for being overly reliant on intermediate staging bases, and promises to extend the medical golden hour to compensate for the tyranny of distance. Space-based logistics can facilitate the delivery of blood, weapons, 3D-printed parts, power, and food to the joint force and has the potential for delivery time to be measured in minutes, not hours or days. The impetus for this idea can be traced to the Cold War.
In the 1960s, the CIA’s Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance developed CORONA spy satellites to augment the U-2 spy planes. Keyhole was the codename for the CORONA satellites, an allusion to a spy peering through a person’s keyhole. CIA Director Allen Dulles and others understood the importance of the CORONA program after U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and detained. The CORONA program would be the only way to get imagery of the Soviet Union and other denied areas. The film capsule would be ejected from the satellite, pass through the ionosphere, and be recovered midair. On Aug. 19, 1960, the film capsule for Discoverer 14 was successfully recovered in midair by a C-119. This theory of materiel reentering the atmosphere to enable mission requirements can be applied to modern sustainment issues and appears more feasible every day, given the continuous reduction in space launch costs.
Supporting Details for a Sustainment-Centric Satellite Constellation in LEO
In 2018, it cost SpaceX an estimated $62 million to launch 22,800 kilograms into space, about $2,720 per kilogram. This was more efficient in terms of launch cost than any operation previously conducted. From 1970 to 2000, the launch cost per kilogram ranged from $10,000 to $32,000. These lower launch costs invert the theory of how the government fields satellite constellations and bring promise to launching satellites with materiel on board to support the warfighter. Since 2018, SpaceX has managed to drop launch costs to $1,500 per kilogram aboard the Falcon-9. Some experts believe the launch cost per kilogram will drop to almost $200 soon.
Acknowledging Rocket-Based Sustainment
The authors of “The World in 90 Minutes or Less: Rocket Logistics and Future Military Operations” in the October 2022 edition of Campaigning: The Journal of the Joint Forces Staff College studied the Vanguard initiative. This program is “exploring the use of orbital-class rockets for point-to-point transportation.” Currently, rocket logistics is faster than air cargo and does not need to adhere to national airspace regulations because of its altitude. However, it is more expensive, requires landing clearances that routinely take 14 to 30 days, and does not offer an exfiltration option without refueling on its delivery site. Additional drawbacks include longer fuel loading times and limited locations that can act as launch sites. The Falcon Heavy can carry one M1A1 tank or one MH-60R helicopter. However, given the adversary’s technical instruments and long lead time for loading and fueling, it will be several years before the DOD can harness the capabilities of rocket logistics to conduct sustainment operations in contested environments. Furthermore, given the operational constraints, rocket logistics appears to be an inferior sustainment method to a constellation in LEO, which can resupply the joint force faster.
Analysis and the Way Ahead
LEO is the most efficacious orbit to establish a sustainment constellation capable of supporting the joint force in the Indo-Pacific. LEO has a revisit rate of 90 minutes, which means the same satellite is over the same area every 90 minutes. If you have two satellites with mirroring orbital characteristics, the revisit time is halved. Orbital characteristics (semi-major axis, eccentricity, inclination, right ascension of the ascending node, or the argument of perigee) could be adjusted to create a robust constellation that could provide sustainment coverage every few minutes if enough satellites were fielded. As you expand to medium earth orbit (MEO), this revisit rate drops to one visit every 12 hours instead of every 90 minutes. The area where you can field these satellites is more extensive, but the ability to surge sustainment operations for the joint force is handicapped due to time. MEO is 2,000 to 20,000 kilometers from Earth. In that light, a sustainment surge could take hours, time that warfighters may not have. Highly elliptical orbit (HEO) has an elongated apogee (its orbit is shaped like an oval to increase the amount of time over Russia), and accounting for orbital tilt, the window to drop a sustainment payload is less than that of the three other orbits. Geosynchronous or geostationary orbit (GEO) rotates at the same velocity as the Earth, which means its window to deploy its payloads is continuous. Still, reception time is the longest due to its distance from the Earth. In sum, LEO has proven to be the most efficacious orbit to support the joint force, followed by MEO, GEO, and then HEO.
While LEO has a commanding lead over all the other orbits, additional benefits are worth considering. HEO appears to be the least beneficial orbit due to the small window in which a sustainment payload can be delivered. However, if units of action were conducting operations in the Arctic, the results would be different because HEO has a large apogee over the Arctic areas. Given the PRC’s ongoing Polar Silk Road initiative, HEO should not be entirely discounted.
The following is recommended to enable the U.S. to be better postured to sustain its formations.
- Invest in research and technology to further explore how distribution nodes in LEO could support the warfighter in Indo-Pacom. Especially if the warfighter is interfacing with satellites under 100 kilograms, the entire satellite could fall back to Earth or just eject the desired payload. Either way, the payload must survive traveling through the ionosphere and deploy a parachute, like the joint precision airdrop system, or descend directly into shallow water where the warfighter could recover it.
- Continue to follow the advances of companies like Made In Space, whose work on additive manufacturing in space could provide dividends for how these space-based logistics constellations can produce vehicle parts, medical infrastructure, or weapons in space.
- Explore options to field a GEO constellation over adversaries and on their periphery. This allows the U.S. a marked advantage for sustainment and simultaneously denies an adversary the capability to field any of their satellites in proximity to those of the U.S.
- Experiment in MEO because it provides the next best alternative in many cases to LEO and HEO for Arctic-centric problem sets.
- Continue encouraging and incentivizing civil and commercial equities to invest in space, space-related technologies, and the space defense industrial base.
- Research how space-based logistics can extend beyond large-scale combat operations and can be used throughout the competition continuum for a variety of mission sets, including humanitarian assistance/disaster response missions.
The DOD will not be able to complete these initiatives on its own. Contested logistics remains one of the DOD’s most significant problems. Until it explores innovative solutions using all domains and dimensions, the DOD risks early culmination, limited operational reach, and undue risk to force, ultimately remaining at a relative disadvantage.
Maj. Brian E. Hamel is a student in the Advanced Military Studies Program. He is a graduate of the Red Team Leader course, Space 200, Special Warfare Brighton, and Special Warfare Touchstone. In 2016, he deployed to Afghanistan in support of a special missions’ unit. He has a Master of Art from Northeastern University, Massachusetts, and recently wrote a thesis detailing special operations’ contributions to space warfare as part of the Information Advantage Scholars Program at the Command and General Staff College, Kansas.
This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.