Making Satellites Less Vulnerable to Attack

Satellites are vital to the military success of the United States and its allies, but they're a particularly vulnerable form of technology: they can be blown up. In January 2007 China launched a missile that blasted one of its own satellites. Russia is believed to have the same capability. In theory, the half dozen other countries able to launch satellites—including Iran and India—could learn how to destroy an enemy satellite. Philip Coyle, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, says, "Satellites are sitting ducks."

There's no easy way to make satellites impervious to missile attacks. Instead, researchers are working on a different defense strategy: making satellites easy to replace, so an attack would be less consequential. Today replacing a satellite is a laborious process. Often the size and weight of a small truck, satellites take years to build and launch at a cost that can exceed $10 billion. So the U.S. Department of Defense is developing inexpensive satellites the size of a dishwasher. Assembled from ready-made components in days or even hours, they will be launched quickly—at the "speed of need," according to a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, a designer of the mini-satellites. "It's a whole new game," says Uzi Rubin, a former head of Israel's Arrow missile-defense program.

It's a technology that's become a priority for the Obama administration: the project's office, in Kirtland, New Mexico, saw its budget grow from $100 million to $190 million this year, largely due to the threat posed by the advancing space programs of China, Iran, and North Korea. Peter Wegner, head of the U.S. Air Force Operationally Responsive Space Office, says the goal of his lab is to make satellites have "the same kind of plug-and-play technology you have in your laptop." One of Wegner's teams recently assembled a mini-satellite in less than four hours; future tests will challenge labs in allied countries to do the same.

Building them quicker is only part of the challenge—governments also need the ability to get replacement satellites into orbit quickly. One U.S. firm, Orbital, launches mini-satellites from a large plane; fighter jets may soon be used as launch platforms, too. France's Dassault Aviation is leading research by modifying a missile launcher on its Rafale jet. Spokesman Philippe Coué says France's "reactive" capabilities could eventually replace a destroyed satellite in hours.

The mini-satellites won't solve all the problems facing the military's orbital communications network. Bandwidth is scarce, especially in the U.S. Central Command theater, which encompasses Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. "Everybody knows it's a problem," says Davi D'Agostino, head of defense capabilities at the Government Accountability Office in Washington, which reviews the Defense Department's work on mini-satellites. And four fifths of the U.S. military's satellite data are transmitted by privately owned and operated commercial satellites, which have proved vulnerable to jamming and hacking. But in an age when the military relies on satellites to guide troops, aircraft, and missiles, making them more resilient is a mission-critical priority.