SEPTEMBER 2023 | technology report | Space systems
With airborne intelligence-gathering platforms no longer enjoying a benign operating environment, attention is turning to space-based sensors to feed troops on the ground in future peer-on-peer conflicts, with particular focus on exploitation of existing commercial and dual-use technologies.
Above: Large numbers of commercial and dual-use satellites have been launched into LEO by providers such as SpaceX. (Photo: SpaceX)
Innovative and disruptive space-based technologies are opening up new opportunities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) as armed forces begin to leverage a burgeoning commercial space sector.
Such advances are critical in supporting operational requirements as units on the ground, in the air and at sea tackle a very different operating environment compared to those encountered during the first two decades of the new millennium.
These saw US-led coalitions dominating the air environment, which ensured troops on the front line benefitted from persistent ISR feeds as they conducted counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions.
But in an age of strategic competition, it has rapidly become much harder to rely upon the same kind of dominant and uninterrupted ISR when pitched against well-equipped and highly capable ‘near peer’ adversaries.
Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event on 17 May, the USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR and Cyber Effects Operations at the Pentagon, Lt Gen Leah G Lauderback, predicted space-based ISR assets would likely increase levels of intelligence-gathering ‘resiliency’ as crewed and uncrewed air platforms were no longer able to operate in a relatively benign environment.
‘We’re going to have incredible amounts of sensors that are coming that are space-based and thus have a certain amount of resiliency, more resiliency or more survivability, certainly, than some of the airborne capabilities,’ Lauderback said.
‘The things that we had persistence with were MQ-9s [and] Global Hawks [which] would help us for sure. But in a permissive environment like that, you can have that persistence. That persistence is very, very satisfying as a “targeteer” – somebody that wants to be able to track, in this case, [insurgents] manoeuvring from one place to the next. We need to do that for peer competitors as well, for when or if we go into conflict… before conflict even,’ she continued.
In conclusion, Lauderback suggested space-based ISR could be used to support operations at the tactical edge, even in the age of strategic competition: ‘It’s just a matter of the scale that you can do and how long [you can] use those in a tactical sense. So we certainly have experience using those in a tactical sense today and [there is] nothing that stops us from doing that in the future,’ she concluded.
So-called ‘dual-use' technologies – commercial solutions re-roled to support military customers in a more secure and resilient manner – are emerging as serious contenders to support image intelligence (IMINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) requirements of armed forces, according to industry sources.
Speaking to Shephard, industry sources suggested space-based ISR could not only be used to generate large amounts of data but also ‘fused’ with other information feeds to provide exponential increases in situation awareness for end users on the ground, in the air and at sea.
Employment of space-based assets represents a critical part of the NATO Space Policy’s ‘lines of effort’. These not only emphasise ISR but space situation awareness; positioning, navigation and timing (PNT); plus shared early warning.
Just as with communications, the proliferation of large, globally deployed low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations is particularly suited to supporting space-based ISR requirements.
Examples include US Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM’s) cooperation with industry partners which resulted in the launch of a secretive ‘Special Reconnaissance’ satellite into LEO in 2022.
Part of USSOCOM’s Modular Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (MISR) programme, the launch was conducted in collaboration with satellite provider Blue Canyon Technologies and payload specialists CMD and National Laboratories.
According to a USSOCOM official, special forces on the ground would be able to ‘tactically task LEO satellites’ to conduct radio frequency (RF)-based ISR collection – a capability which previously would have been undertaken by crewed or uncrewed aircraft.
Specific details about the MISR payload remain classified but according to USSOCOM, deployment of this initial LEO satellite is part of a wider effort by the Tampa-based command to increase space-based ISR capabilities.
According to the official, the command wants to ‘rapidly prototype and demonstrate SOF-relevant capabilities, developing and integrating ISR and enabling technology payloads onto commercial and US government satellites’.
Elsewhere, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Space Force (USSF) are also exploring ways to develop ‘new satellite constellations to increase the tactical capabilities of US space systems’, although the government-run agency conceded ‘new methods’ were required to effectively leverage this emerging technology.
DARPA’s Oversight project is pursuing software solutions capable of enabling ‘constant custody to maintain tracking of [up to 1,000] targets of interest for tactical missions’, according to official documents.
‘The project aims to support both peacetime and wartime monitoring of high-value targets in contested environments where resources and those targets may be highly dynamic. Current practices require human operators for exquisite satellite solutions. This arrangement does not scale well for the numbers of targets that Oversight is considering.
Above: Hawkeye 360 hopes to eventually have 60 satellites in orbit supporting its space-based ELINT service. (Image: Hawkeye 360)
‘Reliance on individual ground station operators significantly increases latency and minimises tactical utility of satellite sensor data. Oversight will develop the autonomy necessary to track targets with the operator overseeing at an aggregate level. It will also leverage existing and/or state-of-the-art networks to provide collaboration between satellite and ground resources,’ the documents continued.
On 16 March, DARPA announced it had downselected Apogee Research, BAE Systems and Systems & Technology Research to support the first phase of Oversight which will run for 15-18 months.
Phase 1 will consider resource management and tracking requirements as well as interfaces between technology platforms in development, a DARPA release confirmed.
'We want to get initial products out as fast as possible and that will help cultivate the development needs in Oversight Phase 2, during which we plan to have applications running on hardware resources,’ the release continued before confirming Oversight is working with US Army, USN, USAF and USSF components.
Oversight capabilities developed under Phase 2 are scheduled to be integrated on board satellites by FY2026, DARPA concluded.
ELINT in space
Commercial entities are also making significant progress in offering armed forces game-changing levels of space-based ELINT, including monitoring of the electromagnetic spectrum, RF intelligence and RF-based geospatial intelligence.
Examples include Hawkeye 360, a commercial firm which is slated to operate a total of 27 satellites in LEO by the end of 2023.
Speaking to Shephard, Hawkeye 360’s VP for marketing, Adam Bennett, described the company’s aspiration to operate a 60-strong LEO constellation in the medium term.
According to Bennett, this increase in satellite numbers will raise the ‘revisit’ time of specialist payloads from every hour to every 30 minutes, increasing levels in accuracy which today can be as low as 500m².
Hawkeye 360 satellites are capable of identifying electronic signatures between 140MHz and 18GHz, gathered over a substantial ‘stare area’ measuring ‘thousands of kilometres’, Bennett said.
He highlighted how specialist payloads could identify VHF and UHF push-to-talk radios, satellite communications in the L- and X-bands, and GPS interference and AIS ship trackers.
Hawkeye 360’s offering is also illustrative of the growing demand for service-based solutions from defence customers.
‘Hawkeye 360 operates the service and provides detailed reports to our customers which can then be used to task other assets for a closer look, eg electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar payloads,’ Bennett, highlighting how machine learning algorithms are also employed to support the processing and exploitation of the huge amounts of data gathered by space-based payloads.
Finally, communications specialist Comtech is pursuing a concept which it calls ‘Insight at the Edge’ which aims to fuse together space-based ISR with other geospatial intelligence-gathering tools.
Specifically designed to enhance the situation awareness of forward-deployed units, Comtech’s concept aims to ensure ‘multi-dimensional and actionable intelligence is delivered to those who need it most through the convergence of multi-orbit, multi-frequency and multi-modality capabilities’, according to the company’s chief strategy officer, Daniel Gizinski.
Above: Satellite-based ISR feeds for forward-deployed units could form a vital element of major networking projects such as the Advanced Battle Management System. (Photo: USAF)
‘These and other compelling modalities have made rapid access to intelligence a new reality for the end user, creating patterns which can be generated when people, places and activities are correlated together,’ he explained to Shephard.
Comtech, which specialises in integrating together cellular, terrestrial and space-based connectivity solutions, supports a variety of US DoD strategic efforts including the US Army’s Project Convergence, the USN’s Project Overmatch and the USAF’s Advanced Battle Management System.
‘Ultimately, a lot of what we're trying to put together is intended to align with some of the core initiatives that are laid out under CJADC2 so it's helpful to have a broad array of expertise in wireless, terrestrial and satellite communications.
‘That really helps drive towards that combined and joint all-domain awareness which is essentially the challenge of bringing together hundreds of different stovepipe systems which were never designed to interoperate with each other.
‘It’s a hard problem but it's one that has been solved particularly well in the commercial cellular world already. I think Comtech is able to bring a lot of the focus and lessons learned from that to support some of the CJADC2 initiatives,’ Gizinski concluded.