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USSF Eyes Proliferated Constellation in LEO for Space-Based Targeting

The Space Force and NRO will build a large number of targeting satellites to launch into low-Earth orbit as part of the ongoing push to proliferate satellites, the USSF’s top intelligence officer said May 2.

For months now, the two organizations have been working on a program to develop satellites that will provide moving target indication (MTI), helping troops on the ground or in the air keep track of targets and replacing old Air Force platforms that officials say would not survive in a contested environment. But many details of the plan remain under wraps.

Speaking with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Gagnon, vice chief of space operations for intelligence, did not offer specifics on how many satellites will be needed or when they will launch, but he did lay out the basic framework for how they will work and how Guardians will use them to assist combatant commanders around the globe.

“This will be an asset that’s in LEO,” Gagnon said. “You think about the numbers of these that you will buy, and you think about proliferating this architecture so that it can be difficult to destroy multiple of them … and so the fact that you proliferate your architecture and don’t just have like six satellites that can do this—I won’t give you the real number—but you can have lots of satellites that do this. It makes it difficult for them to disrupt.”

The Space Force is already building proliferated constellations for transporting data and missile warning/missile tracking in low-Earth orbit. The hope is that a potential adversary such as China won’t be able to shoot down enough satellites to disrupt the network, thus discouraging it from trying in the first place.

In order for such a targeting solution to work, the Space Force will likely have to buy dozens of small satellites. Spacecraft in LEO don’t stay in one place, and it takes several to provide steady, persistent coverage over an area. On the plus side, small, fast-moving satellites are tough to disable, Gagnon said.

“if you’re lying in the backyard and you’re looking up and something’s going over at LEO, it’s going over really fast,” he explained. “So you have to be able to know what it is, track it, send that firing solution to a firing element, and get that engagement as it’s zipping over you, because you only have a field of view that’s kind of short.”

For decades, the Air Force relied on aircraft such as the E-8C JSTARS and E-3 AWACS for moving target indication, but officials worry those could be easily destroyed in a near-peer conflict. Proliferated satellites are thought to be more survivable, but they require a change in mindset about the very nature of military space, Gagnon said.

“It’s a tactical platform in space, and our use of space as a community has always considered it special and strategic,” he said. “Space is no longer only strategic. Space is tactical. And our adversaries have made it so.”

The shift to tactical raises questions about who will direct and operate the satellites. For years, agencies such as the NRO and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency conducted intelligence operations from space, but did not focus on real-time targeting. With the shift to tactical, Space Force officials say the combatant commands should have tasking authority over the satellites, with the help of the Space Force components stood up within those combatant commands in recent years.

“The Space Force proposal, since we’re part of the joint force, and we’ve stood up components in each of the combatant commands, is to make sure that our component can service their component partners, whether it’s the Army component, the maritime component, or the Air Force component, with timely, relevant MTI capability based off the direction of their joint combatant commander,” Gagnon said.

Recent media reports indicate tension between the Space Force and other agencies about how to fulfill the MTI mission, but Gagnon said he is working with both the NGA and NRO on the problem.

“I have spent the last three days actually out at NGA with [NGA director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth] and [NRO director Christopher Scolese]. We’re in meetings where we’re talking about the best way to optimize taxpayer money that supports the joint warfighting need,” Gagnon said. “Because we must be able to do moving target indicator with sensor control from the warfighters so that they can close the kill chain. That’s our remit.”

Government satellites may not be the only ones providing MTI. Gagnon noted a Space Force pilot program that started last year called “Tactical Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Tracking,” or TacSRT, that created a commercial marketplace for such data. Combatant commanders can go to the marketplace, type in the kind of data they need, and then contractors have 72 hours to respond to the proposal, Gagnon explained.

Space Systems Command, the Space Force’s main acquisition arm, then determines if it can fund the proposal and if other intelligence community agencies have contracts or capabilities that can meet the need.

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