Here’s a handy test to determine how much you really know about the defense business. What is the biggest threat to America’s billion-dollar spy satellites — (a) Russian antisatellite weapons, (b) Chinese jamming devices, or (c) poor Pentagon management? If you answered (a), (b), or (c), you’re wrong. Sorry, it’s a trick question. The real threat to America’s spy satellites is an Air Force program called the Global Hawk, because it can do most of the things that spy satellites can do and a lot of things they can’t for a small fraction of the cost.
Global Hawk is a high-flying unmanned aerial vehicle that can hang around undetected above targets of interest for up to 30 hours, much longer than any manned aircraft could. It was designed to conduct reconnaissance over large areas using cameras and other sensors that can beam what they’re seeing to U.S. command posts in a few seconds. Like a satellite, Global Hawk is remotely controlled so it does not endanger a human pilot. Unlike satellites, though, Global Hawk can inspect a surface target quite closely for a full day or longer.
Many people outside the defense community think that the reason why the government spends billions of dollars on eavesdropping and imagery satellites is because space offers a unique vantage point from which to view enemies. Actually, that’s only true in the sense that there’s nowhere you can go that’s farther away from areas of interest on the earth’s surface. In fact, if you want to actually sit over a target and watch it constantly from space, you have to go over 22,000 miles away — to what is known as geosynchronous orbit. That’s a great place from which to view a whole hemisphere at once, but guess how likely you are to see a terrorist or hear his cellphone conversation from geosynchronous orbit.
You could come down a lot lower, to what is called low-earth orbit, but then you’re moving at several miles per second relative to the earth’s surface and your field of view is much reduced. So you’re over the horizon before you see or hear much. The horizon problem can be fixed by spacing out a dozen or more satellites in the same low-earth orbit, so that one is always within range of targets, but that’s a pricey proposition. In fact, it’s too pricey even for the U.S. government: it only has a handful of satellites taking pictures or eavesdropping in low-earth orbit, and most of the time they’re out of range of anything interesting.
So it turns out space isn’t such a great place from which to collect intelligence — at least, not when you’re looking for terrorists. The main reason we rely on spy satellites is because during the Cold War, the Russians were too good at shooting down anything that got closer. But times have changed. Some of our new enemies don’t have air defenses, and even those that do have a tough time detecting (much less destroying) a Global Hawk flying a dozen miles overhead. It’s sort of like having a very low-flying satellite, only without the tradeoff between presence and proximity.
That’s one reason why Global Hawk has conducted over a hundred secret missions in Southwest Asia since the intensive period of fighting in Iraq ended, mostly against terrorists. It offers capabilities for acquiring imagery, tracking moving targets and eavesdropping on communications that no satellite or manned aircraft can match. And while the cost of developing a larger-payload/higher-power version of the vehicle is up about 17% from what planners expected, that isn’t much compared with the huge cost growth in some satellite systems. No other reconnaissance system seems better suited to this era of elusive threats.
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