war on the rocks

Persistent Eye in the Sky: How Commercial Satellites Can Help the Navy Achieve Superior Maritime Awareness

November 2, 2018

The world’s largest constellation of satellites is not operated by the U.S. government, but rather by Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based startup that uses satellites to gain insights for its commercial customers. Inside its office, a single monitor on the wall shows the precise location of the company’s more than 200 satellites that are orbiting several hundred kilometers above the Earth. Dashed lines flash on the screen as each passing satellite, or “Dove,” as the company calls them, links data to ground stations around the world. Each day, Planet Labs images every square foot of the globe, sending 1.4 million imagessix terabytes worth of data — to Earth for processing, generating unprecedented perspective, awareness, and insight about the world below.

While principally focused on commercial applications, the dual-use nature of this technology is clear. Battles at sea historically favor the first effective attacker. Launching the first effective attack requires either superior scouting, as in Adm. Chester Nimitz’s inferior fleet’s victory at Midway, or superior firepower, in the case of Commodore George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay. Today, scouting capability is taking on renewed importance because there is near parity in offensive missile capability among the United States and its near-peer rivals. Russia and China have built anti-ship missiles like the SS-N-22 and YJ-18, respectively, and the United States has found ways to defend against them. However, the U.S. Navy did not have a credible offensive anti-ship cruise missile until the recent introduction of the SM-6. A new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile is also under development. All of these missiles pack enough of a punch to take out critical electrical and combat systems equipment aboard ships to deliver a “mission kill.”

Today, the U.S. Navy maintains the world’s best maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The U.S. government owns dozens of the world’s most exquisite satellites for intelligence gathering and precision targeting. However, highly equipped satellites are expensive, which means only a few can be put into orbit to cover the vast expanse of the oceans. In reality, hundreds of satellites are needed to persistently image the entire maritime domain. While no government currently has enough satellites in orbit to meet the threshold necessary to maintain a real-time, broad understanding of the maritime domain, private companies now do. If other nations are able to capitalize on these new advancements, U.S. ships would be more vulnerable to an effective first attack than they have been since World War II.

The revolution in small commercial satellites, combined with the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, turns satellite imagery from mere information into intelligence. The commercialization of these capabilities gives other nations — both small and peer competitors — the ability to compete with the United States for a space-based ISR advantage. The U.S. Navy should take advantage of and integrate advances in commercial ISR technology to enhance its strike capabilities and ensure that it continues to control the seas.

A Commercial Opportunity

Planet Labs is neither the first nor the only commercial constellation (another name for a large group of satellites orbiting in coordination). The first commercial small-satellite venture, SkyBox Imagery, launched its “SkySat” in 2013. Since then, the market surrounding commercial space-based data has exploded and is worth an estimated $2.2 billion. The acquisition of SkyBox by Google in 2014 for $500 million highlights the perceived value of small commercial constellations. Moreover, the number of new entrants and breath of technological advancement has increased dramatically. In addition to still images, satellites can now capture full-motion video, use Synthetic Aperture Radar to see through clouds and at night, and collect minute radio frequency emissions. As a result, technology and insights once reserved only for global superpowers have become available for a fraction of the price.

Top-tier government and defense satellites can cost hundreds of millions or upwards of $1 billion. Each Planet Labs satellite costs just $100,000. For broad area scouting and maritime domain awareness, small satellites’ lower cost and greater coverage raise the question: Is spending $100 million on a single powerful reconnaissance satellite a better buy than a constellation of a hundred, or even a thousand, small satellites?

In 2018, Planet Labs became interested in tracking maritime shipping. The firm soon announced the first-ever commercially available broad-surveillance capability for the open ocean, capable of locating Carrier Strike Groups at sea. Planet’s advantage is its number of satellites. More satellites in orbit means a shorter revisit time of the same spots on Earth, providing an enhanced ability to track any ship — anytime, anywhere, in any condition — without relying on traditional methods. This, combined with increasing levels of satellites sophistication and image processing, has significant implications for the future of naval warfare. The U.S. Navy is used to dominating the seas. If it does not act quickly to acquire commercial scouting capabilities, its advantage could soon disappear.

Beyond Data Collection

Even if the United States owned hundreds of satellites that constantly collected imagery data, they would be useless if the data could not be processed efficiently and cost-effectively. Human intelligence analysts would be playing a perpetual game of “Where’s Waldo?” as they searched for warships among millions of images.

AI changes that. Advancements in computing power and deep learning make all of this data useful to decision-makers. The financial industry, realizing the potential of satellite imagery-driven decision-making, poured money into developing this capability. For instance, counting the number of cars in a Walmart parking lot can reveal a lot about retail growth, and tracking oil levels in large storage tanks across the world can help predict the global supply of oil. Funding from these financiers has catalyzed new techniques to process satellite imagery over the past few years. Silicon Valley startups like Orbital Insight use AI to process and analyze imagery in a way that vastly outpaces and out-scales traditional human analysis. As a result, commercial companies are gaining more insights faster than ever before. The Department of Defense should do the same. Whether one is interested in profits or national security, understanding the maritime domain greatly benefits both tactical and strategic decision-making.


There will always be a need for high-end satellites, particularly for precision tracking and targeting, but it’s time to pair these capabilities with the powerful new search capacity of commercial satellite imagery. This remains essential, because in order to strike effectively first, a ship must perform the “detect to engage sequence” on the enemy: find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess. Commercial satellite constellations help with the “find” and “fix” portions, the slowest part of the sequence. All navies will have to embrace this new approach, but we focus here on the U.S. Navy because it has access to the world’s greatest innovation ecosystems — as well as the most to lose.

Navy leaders should demand the rapid acquisition of this commercial technology, and ensure it is fully integrated into shipboard combat systems suites, so that the service can maintain its ISR advantage and leverage high-end missiles like the SM-6 and Long Range Anti-Ship Missile to their fullest potential. The service should work to understand the tactical and operational implications of a world where ships can run, but not hide, amongst the seas.


Lt. Junior Grade Tom Wester is a Navy surface warfare officer currently serving as the repair officer on USS HOWARD (DDG 83). He received a Bachelors in Mathematics from the United States Naval Academy in 2016 and a Masters in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University, where he focused on national security and technology policy. Tom is a plank owner and served as a project manager for the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), where he led projects focusing on the use of commercial data sources for broad-scale maritime domain awareness.

Lt. Junior Grade Richard Kuzma is a Navy surface warfare officer passionate about how the Defense Department adapts to emerging technologies, particularly AI. He a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, where he wrote a thesis on how the Defense Department should structurally change to implement artificial intelligence. Previously, he worked at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), where he led data creation on xView, one of the largest overhead imagery datasets in the world. He is curating a machine-learning self-study program for members of the Defense Department as a Defense Entrepreneurs Forum firestarter fellow. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Navy, or the DIU.

Image: Wikimedia Commons