There is a prevalent belief that satellites are magic eyes-in-the-sky that see everything at all times and can track the movements of every individual enemy soldier, ship, and plane. In fact, this is one of the common arguments against the aircraft carrier – that it will be continuously tracked by enemy satellites and thus be totally vulnerable to attack by all manner of missiles from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Is this really the case? Have satellites rendered surface navies obsolete?
I have no particular specialized knowledge about satellites and their capabilities but I’m going to attempt to apply some common sense logic and see how capable satellites really are.
For starters, history, in the form of military exercises, has repeatedly shown that naval surface forces are very difficult to find using satellites. That’s one fact that I do know.
Next, let’s look at this from a numbers perspective. At any given moment, how many ships are in the South/East China Seas, for example? Hundreds? Thousands? Asking a satellite (meaning the guy who sits and analyzes the images from a satellite) to distinguish civilian from military and friend from foe for hundreds or thousands of possibilities is an enormous task. If the satellite “zooms” in to make ID easy, the corresponding area covered decreases. Now, how many satellites are available for general tracking? I have no idea but my guess would be on the order of a dozen, maybe less. Covering the area of the South/East China Seas and the number of possible contacts is a daunting task.
I think what satellites are really good at is taking images of the same object or small piece of land repeatedly and looking for changes (silo added, submarine/ship moved from alongside a pier, etc.).
In a war, I would think the available satellite tracking would be focused on high priority land based targets (missile silos, HQs, bases, etc.) rather than trying to dynamically track ships at sea.
I know someone is going to pound out a comment that a satellite can image a playing card in someone’s hand from up in space. That’s probably true – if the location of the person is precisely known. I’m not sure how that translates to spotting ships but the argument is used, nevertheless. Consider though, the area being scanned if that level of zoom is used – a square meter, maybe? Scanning the ocean a square meter at a time to look for ships would take forever. Zooming out and scanning hundreds of square miles at a time will speed up the process but the contacts become mere pinpoints that are not readily identifiable.
Finally, in a high intensity war the satellites of both sides will be priority targets from day one and functioning satellites may become a rarity very quickly.
Now, let’s change tacks and consider what happens when a satellite does find and identify an enemy ship. I have no idea how foreign countries operate their satellites but I would guess that, like any large organization, the findings go through multiple levels of bureaucracy (or command and control, if you prefer) where the findings are sorted and, eventually, disseminated to the units that can benefit from the information. That process takes significant amounts of time. By the time the data makes its way to a unit that could initiate an attack, the target has moved a significant distance. Many people seem to have the idea that satellites are directly hooked into individual ships and planes thereby providing real time targeting data. I’m pretty certain this isn’t the case.
In summary, satellites are a valuable and useful surveillance tool but hardly the all-seeing eye in the sky that many make them out to be. The best use seems to be as monitors of fixed points, looking for changes from day to day.