Senior Pentagon officials have decided to equip a new satellite system with the ability to take high-resolution pictures through clouds and darkness. The satellite, called the Space-Based Radar, was originally conceived as an orbital platform from which to track the movement of surface vehicles such as tanks and warships. But because its radar will operate at the same frequencies as secret photo-reconnaissance satellites, policymakers want to use it for imagery collection too. That decision has important consequences for the way the U.S. collects intelligence.
Space-Based Radar (SBR) is one of several space initiatives begun by the Bush Administration as part of military transformation. It will employ a “synthetic aperture” radar similar to that on the Joint Stars surveillance aircraft to track surface targets. A single Joint Stars can simultaneously monitor all of the traffic movements in a typical Washington rush-hour. The idea behind SBR is to place that capability in orbit, so that huge swaths of the earth’s surface can be continuously monitored without having to fly near contested airspace. A constellation in low-earth orbit would require 21 cross-linked satellites; in higher orbits, 11 would suffice.
Despite resistance from appropriators who killed a related effort begun during the Clinton years, Secretary Rumsfeld wants to put SBR on a fast track for initial operating capability in 2012. And therein lies an interesting implication for intelligence gathering. The United States operates two super-secret constellations of photo-reconnaissance satellites, usually referred to in the technical literature as Advanced KH-11 and Lacrosse (or Onyx). KH-11 collects conventional electro-optical imagery (infrared at night) capable of capturing objects as small as ten centimeters in length from orbits varying between 250 and 550 miles above the earth’s surface. Lacrosse uses millimeter-wave radars to collect lower-resolution imagery through clouds.
There are only three of each type of satellite in orbit, and they’re getting old. One of the Lacrosse spacecraft sent over Baghdad during the war was launched in March 1991– which is not good, since its intended design life was less than ten years. Equally important, the satellites are out of range most of the time. If they cross Iraq twice a day, then it’s obvious that most of the time they’re over the horizon from intended targets. A constellation of satellites called the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) was supposed to improve coverage by orbiting a larger number of spacecraft, some in higher orbits with wider fields of view. But that program has fallen years behind schedule (not to mention billions of dollars over budget), and it is facing serious slippage in performance.
Ideally, the intelligence community would like a “staring” sensor in geosynchronous orbit that could deliver high-resolution imagery of key targets continuously. The National Reconnaissance Office is pursuing that possibility and intermediate options, but they aren’t ready for primetime. So one increasingly likely outcome is that SBR takes over some of the photo-reconnaissance missions of the Future Imagery Architecture, while other missions are offloaded to commercial remote-sensing satellites. FIA fills the near-term gap in collection needs, and then is rapidly replaced by more transformational systems better suited to a world of diverse threats.
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