Private satellite operators make case for helping military track ground targets

Umbra imagery from its tandem pair of Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites. The company says operating satellites in a cluster formation offers distinctive phenomenology that could be applied to moving target indication techniques. Credit: Umbra

Umbra imagery from its tandem pair of Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites. The company says operating satellites in a cluster formation offers distinctive phenomenology that could be applied to moving target indication techniques. Credit: Umbra

By Sandra Erwin,
Published by Space News, 23 March 2024

As the U.S. military looks to replace spy planes, companies tout commercial constellations for battlefield awareness

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force and the Space Force are working with the National Reconnaissance Office to develop a dedicated constellation of sensor satellites specifically designed for Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI). This technology would replace the large radar surveillance aircraft like JSTARS previously used by the Air Force to track the movement of troops and vehicles on the ground.

At the same time, hundreds of commercial remote sensing satellites are orbiting the Earth, providing unprecedented imaging capabilities, leading industry executives to question whether the military should leverage these commercial systems for GMTI.

During a panel discussion March 20 at the Satellite 2024 conference, executives said the military’s interest in GMTI from space creates an opportunity for the Pentagon to capitalize on private investment in remote-sensing constellations.

They pointed out that while military systems optimized for persistent custody of specific targets will still be required, regularly updated commercial imagery could potentially handle general monitoring of areas of interest and tracking of slower-moving targets and patterns of life.

They argued that a hybrid approach leveraging commercial and dedicated military systems could provide a “best of both worlds” solution at a lower cost to taxpayers.

Monitoring not the same as staring

Jason Mallare, vice president of U.S. government programs and strategy at Umbra, said the company has been working with the Defense Advanced Projects Agency on satellite imaging techniques aimed at tracking moving targets

Umbra builds and operates small satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar, a type of sensor that can create high-resolution images  by processing radar signals. 

Private industry has deployed cutting-edge imaging technology in space “even without a clear demand signal, without clear budgeting, or without a clear addressable market in the world’s biggest space economy,” said Mallare. “Can you imagine what we’d be able to do if the government said: this is what the requirements are, this is the latency we need, this is the type of product we need?”

Scott Herman, chief product officer of the satellite imaging firm Maxar Intelligence, noted that commercial systems weren’t designed for the relentless “stare” required on the battlefield that JSTARS, short for Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systemused to provide.

The Air Force stopped flying JSTARS because it was deemed too vulnerable in today’s combat environment where advanced air defense systems pose a serious threat to large, slow-moving aircraft. 

Herman noted that commercial constellations excel at frequent revisits of large areas, but pinpointing fast-moving targets like pickup trucks or tanks demands a different approach — one known as “keeping custody” of a target. This requires a satellite to maintain its focus on a specific area for extended periods, a capability currently lacking in most commercial offerings.

David Gauthier, a former National Geospatial Intelligence Agency official and now chief strategy officer at GXO Inc., suggested the government could consider a hybrid approach. The military can leverage commercially available systems for broader situational awareness and track slower-moving targets. But to keep a constant eye on fast-moving threats, dedicated military GMTI satellites will be necessary.

Commercial sats for battlefield intelligence

Herman noted that commercial constellations in low Earth orbit are optimized for periodic regional monitoring, not true battle tracking, although there are niches for commercial imagery to augment national systems

It’s possible to “derive motion vectors” from commercial images to determine if an object is moving in a particular direction, which can be valuable intelligence, he said. “That is different from the constantly staring persistent wide area asset to track a convoy moving up a highway.”

It’s easier to do maritime domain awareness with commercial satellites because they move slow enough and custody can be maintained from space, said Eric Jensen, chief executive of Iceye U.S., an operator of SAR satellites. 

Iceye provides a maritime surveillance service focused on tracking vessels at sea. “But if you’ve got a fast moving boat racing from Cuba to Florida, that’s  a completely different problem,” said Jensen. “So it’s important that we all recognize these are not linear use cases, and that there is a subset in each domain in terms of the types of objects that you want to track that is highly applicable to capabilities that are on orbit today.”

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