Small Satellites for India’s Security: A Techno-Entrepreneurial View

The terrain of space exploration in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has been continuously evolving and one can argue that small satellites have tremendously changed this terrain over the last three decades. The ongoing debates–small vs. large satellites, the size that constitutes ‘small’–are not related to capability or capacity, but rather their ability to complement each other’s platforms and overcome disadvantages.

This paper examines the continuously evolving technology and applications of small satellites of the class of <150kg. These small satellites are often missions with a two- to five-year timeframe. This study probes the potential of extending small satellite technology to space security through a study of adaptation and experimentation by stakeholders in the industry.

Small satellites provide strategic users with affordable satellite constellations that have excellent tactical and theatre control capabilities designed for specific operations. Some of the key advantages of using small satellites include the following:

•   Unlike large satellites, small satellites can operationalise usage with minimal personnel and logistics tail. This advantage is due to their speciec design for tactical warfare: in mission scenarios, they act as
‘gap fillers’ for their larger counterparts.

•   Larger satellites often have mission durations of over five years, inherently shortening their shelf life due to rapid technological changes on space-based platforms. Small satellites provide an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the constantly upgrading technologies to provide complementary technology capabilities.

•   Small satellites offer a unique opportunity to integrate satellites at low cost per unit due to a combination of factors, such as using Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) components along with simpler design philosophies due to their operational lives being internationally kept lower (to cope with constant cost/technology upgrades.)

•   Small satellites provide augmentation and reconstitution at extremely rapid timelines. These are inherent advantages due to their rapidly design-build, short-notice deployment responsiveness. Low-flying constellations also provide graceful degradation.

•   They provide an opportunity to task from theatre and in a constellation, their configuration can provide persistent and globally available capabilities. Small satellites, especially in constellations, have extremely low volumes per unit, considering their larger counterparts. Thus they other excellent survivability against Anti-Satellite (ASAT) engagement. The cost ratio in engagement of such constellations may often not favour the engager (provided the ability to be operationally responsive).