Space Technology Trends and Implications for National Security


This piece appeared in our 2015 print journal. You can order your copy here

The democratization of space is already underway. The 21st century is witnessing a rapid acceleration in both the development of space and satellite technology and the availability of this technology to countries, corporations, and in­­­dividuals. Advances in technology allow large and expensive capabilities to fit on smaller, lighter, and cheaper platforms. Simultaneously, advanced imagery and communications technologies previously available to only a select few wealthy, spacefaring nations are now proliferating to new countries and even companies. Tiny satellites called CubeSats are spreading to schools, governments, and corporations and performing the tasks of large traditional satellites at a fraction of the cost. This poses a significant challenge to the American notion of space superiority. The United States takes for granted its dominance in the conventional domains of air, land, and sea. Its supremacy in space will be challenged as these new technologies proliferate to users around the globe, creating rapid, affordable space access for all. In the midst of these dynamics, U.S. national security policy remains mired in an outdated paradigm of space and has not adapted to the changing geopolitical reality.

A Cold War model – in which the use of space was largely strategic, and threats to American satellite systems were limited (primarily from the Soviet Union) – continues to shape the U.S. approach to space. As space entered a more dynamic environment after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. became more dependent on space, especially commercial and civil systems. Today, new technological advances such as cheap high-definition satellite imagery, competitors to the Global Positioning System (GPS), and the massive growth of CubeSats are rapidly altering the space landscape. Space is increasingly accessible to the rest of the world, and thus the future risk to American space superiority is broader than nation-states like Russia and China. The United States needs to embrace this democratization of space and move away from massive and expensive military-centric space platforms and towards cheaper, more innovative systems and better private solutions.

Satellite Navigation in the 21st Century

The evolution of GPS is a prime example of how the United States remains rooted in a static space mentality. Originally conceived as a navigation fix for ballistic missile submarines, GPS was conceived, built, and operated by the Department of Defense (DoD). The best signal was originally reserved solely for military use, until President Reagan and later President Clinton solidified the provision of GPS as a free public good without signal restrictions. Today, GPS is part of our everyday lives, and its commercial utility is on par with its military applications. The next decade, however, will see foreign satellite navigation systems emerge as serious competitors to America’s GPS monopoly. Europe (Galileo), Russia (GLONASS), and China (Compass) will likely have global coverage by 2020, and are aggressively going after shares of the satellite navigation market. GPS is suffering from DoD budget shortfalls and its next-generation satellites are falling behind schedule.[1]

The erosion of America’s GPS monopoly will have significant consequences for national security. As other countries develop competing systems, satellite navigation technology will proliferate to foreign militaries as well as shrink the global market share of GPS. Potential adversaries like Russia and China can now develop high-precision weaponry and reduce their vulnerability to a U.S. jamming in the event of a conflict. China’s rapid development of anti-access/area-denial capabilities to defeat the U.S. Navy in the Pacific revolves around a new class of anti-ship missiles that relies upon its growing satellite constellation for guidance and communication coverage.[2]

The U.S. government currently regulates and controls the exports of GPS receivers for national security reasons. Receivers capable of operating at high speeds and altitudes are classified as weapons and fall under export control restrictions.[3] Both new Russian and Chinese systems are unlikely to be subject to the same stringent export controls as GPS, and high-precision navigation technology for weapons is likely to proliferate. Other countries may also turn to Russian or Chinese systems to guarantee service in the event of a conflict. Pakistan signed on to Compass in 2013, partly due to concerns over the availability of GPS from the U.S. in a nuclear scenario.[4]

As more countries start to bring their own national satellite navigation systems online, they will throw the full weight of their governments and budgets behind promoting them. Although GPS is still likely to be the primary market player for the foreseeable future, it will no longer be the dominant option. As a result, the United States should reconsider whether GPS is still worth being a DoD owned and operated system, provided to the world free of charge. The United Kingdom and Germany have already pioneered the commercial outsourcing of their military satellite communication systems. [5] Moving to a partially civilian or even private system would better serve GPS’ important commercial role while still protecting national security interests.

Space and International Politics

The United States’ position as a space power grows less unique as more countries around the world invest in space every year. 58 countries spent over $10 million on space in 2013, compared to 37 in 2003. 22 additional countries have plans for future space investment, bringing the total to 80 countries with space programs and ambitions.[6] This trend indicates that governments see space as a valuable investment in support of social, scientific, economic, and strategic goals. It is also a signal that access to space is becoming easier and more attractive, and the era of space dominance enjoyed by traditional economic powers is rapidly coming to a close. Although the United States remains the world’s largest space program, its share of global spending is at its lowest point in history: 54% in 2013 compared to 75 percent in 2000.[7]

As the rest of the world invests in space, the U.S. space industry is struggling to compete in the global space market and to export space systems and technologies, even to close allies. Only in June 2014 did the State Department declassify many commercial space technologies as weapons and open the door to international exports. [8] The market in the developing world presents a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. economy and industrial base. Just as importantly, building a close business relationship around space can lead to strong political ties and influence. Thus far, the U.S. has missed this opportunity while its competitors are racing ahead. Years of sanctions mean that space and diplomacy rarely are in the same conversation, and fears over technology transfer risks persist. Russia, Europe, and others are already aggressively courting wealthy countries with space ambitions such as Brazil and the Middle East.

The United States should look to space as a cornerstone of future bilateral technology deals, especially with emerging economic powers. The United States has a vital strategic partnership with India that it is attempting to cement through closer military and commercial ties, including defense equipment. India’s young space industry has immense economic potential, and if Russia, France, or other nations can meet their needs before the United States, a tremendous strategic and commercial opportunity will be lost. The 2005 U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement was a watershed milestone for both countries and set the tone for U.S.–India relations for the next decade. An analogous agreement around space technology and launch services could have a similar game-changing impact on the strategic relationship. American diplomatic strategy should aggressively pursue these types of international space deals to build its economic as well as “soft power” around the globe.

The Small Satellite Revolution

A revolution in cheap, lightweight, and efficient technology is rapidly bringing down the cost and increasing the capabilities of satellites. Microsatellites under 100 kg are becoming increasingly popular among startup technology companies, especially the CubeSat standard (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm units under 5 kg). Fully assembled CubeSats can be purchased online for under $100,000. The small satellite revolution is being driven by the private sector, not governments. Startups have found a niche with small satellites’ low cost and short timelines allowing cutting-edge technologies to be placed into space quicker. CubeSats can be launched with six-month-old computers, whereas large satellites dependent on changing government budgets and requirements are often launched with ten-year-old computers.[9] There were 93 attempted nanosatellite (1 – 10 kg) deliveries in 2013, an incredible 330 percent increase from 2012, and the trend is expected to grow exponentially. [10]

The impact of the small satellite revolution on national security remains unclear. Although the capabilities of small satellites continue to grow as their cost falls, questions remain about their viability as a legitimate alternative to traditional large satellites. There are limits to the miniaturization of payloads, particularly in power and communication. However, budget shortfalls mean that the U.S. needs to invest in cheaper solutions to meet strategic goals. Worldview-2, a high-resolution earth observation satellite, costs about $400 million to build with an estimated lifespan of eight years. A new startup called Skybox Imaging, recently acquired by Google, built a small satellite with nearly equal capabilities for under $50 million that will last four years.[11]

Cheaper, smaller satellites offer significant opportunities as gap fillers for the U.S. military to meet urgent battlefield requirements. Small satellites do not have to compete with large satellite systems, but they can provide a rapid, affordable surge capacity during conflicts. One attempt is a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program called SeeMee, whose aim is to launch an inexpensive constellation of roughly two dozen disposable small satellites to provide near-real-time (no older than 90 minutes) imagery directly to individual soldiers’ handheld devices.[12] Although various military agencies are developing innovative space technology programs, there is no attempt to integrate these systems into larger military doctrine. Ultimately, small satellites need to be integrated into warfighting at all operational levels, not just seen as a special niche capability.

Imagery for All

The private sector is also racing ahead of governments in satellite imagery using small satellites. Due to the limited number of imagery satellites and U.S. government priority over demand, ordering an image of a specific place on earth can take weeks, or even months. New companies like Planet Labs and Skybox use small satellite constellations to offer resolutions from 1 – 3 m and revisit rates of multiple times per day.[13] The Commerce Department’s recent decision to allow the sale of images under 0.50 cm resolution should spur further innovation in the market.[14] Skybox’s first satellite, SkySat-1, has already released the first full HD video from space. As competition grows, the next decade may see commercial imagery available under $2/square km (compared to over $20/square km today).

The impact of cheap, commercially available imagery will be far-reaching. The abundant availability of this data has significant disruptive potential, especially in the financial sector. In 2010, analysts at UBS used satellite photos of Walmart parking lots to estimate the company’s sales before its quarterly earnings were released.[15] The applications are nearly unlimited— watching Foxconn’s manufacturing facility to determine when the next iPhone is released, measuring the moisture content of cornfields to predict price changes, or conducting surveillance of a U.S. embassy before an attack.

European, Chinese, Israeli, and other foreign firms are following suit in the earth observation market. Foreign militaries will be able to bypass American controls on the export of images and use high-resolution photographs for military reconnaissance. The U.S. military has historically faced a low threat from foreign aerial surveillance, with only a few advanced countries able to afford reconnaissance satellites (usually with limited coverage areas and low resolution). Now adversaries such as Iran and North Korea can potentially access photos of sensitive military sites. Equally concerning is the potential for terrorist groups to use commercial imagery for surveillance of possible targets. Persistent overhead surveillance is the new reality, and as a result the U.S. needs to adapt its security posture and defensive mindset.

Where Should the U.S. Go?

Even though the United States is leading the innovations in space through the private sector, the military remains rooted in Cold War thinking and has failed to keep up with the pace of technology, particularly small satellites. The rest of the world is moving towards leveraging cheaper solutions to gain an asymmetric advantage. The United States needs to embrace the private sector and better integrate space technology into diplomatic and economic partnership building. Europe has already moved towards partial privatization of its military imagery and communication satellite systems, but the United States remains committed to total DoD control over national security space operations, even GPS. New private companies such as SpaceX are also shaking up the launch market, dramatically reducing costs and timelines to orbit. Until the United States embraces these disruptive space elements, its space platforms will continue down an unsustainable path of rising costs and lengthy development. As space technology evolves at an accelerating rate, so too must U.S. national space policy.


Jesse Hampton is currently at Palantir Technologies, where he focuses on delivering big data solutions that allow global institutions to solve their biggest, toughest problems. He recently received his Master in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to attending the Kennedy School, Hampton worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy as the country director for South Asia. He oversaw the military relationship with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Maldives and managed bilateral initiatives on maritime security, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance. Hampton’s interest in space began when he wanted to be an astronaut as a child, but matured during a summer internship when he worked for MIT Lincoln Laboratory and conducted research on threats and vulnerabilities to U.S. space systems. He enjoys traveling to as many new countries as possible, baking cheesecakes, and frequent concerts and music festivals.


Photo of Dec. 21, 2015 spacewalk via NASA


[1] Divis, Dee Ann. “GPS Modernization Stalls”. Inside GNSS, March/April 2014.

[2] Kreisher, Otto. “Authors Say U.S. Military Not Giving Enough Attention to China’s A2AD Capabilities.” Seapower, 5 June 2014.

[3] “Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).” Arms Control Association.

[4] “Pakistan Signs up for China’s GPS Rival.” Pakistan Defence.

[5] Profiles of Government Space Programs. Rep. 2014 ed. Euroconsult: 43:9.

[6] Ibid., 2

[7] Ibid., 3

[8] “Export Control Reform (almost) Reaches the Finish Line.” The Space Review. 27 May 2014.

[9] Although these older computers are typically space-rated, which have their own benefits such as being radiation-hardened and better suited to survive the harshness of space.

[10] 2014 Nano/Microsatellite Market Assessment. Rep. SpaceWorks Enterprises, 2014.

[11] “Inside a Startup’s Plan to Turn a Swarm of DIY Satellites Into an All-Seeing Eye.” 16 June 0013.

[12] Messier, Douglas. “DARPA Moves Forward With Phoenix, ALASA and XS-1 Projects.” Parabolic Arc Blog. 24 Mar. 2014.


[14] Fester, Warren. “U.S. Government Eases Restrictions on Digital Globe.” Space News, 11 June 2014.

[15] Javers, Eamon. “New Big Brother: Market-Moving Satellite Images.” CNBC. 16 Aug. 2010.

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