An artist's illustration of a U.S. Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite built by Lockheed Martin in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO). Mike Tsukamoto/staff; Lockheed Martin
Photo Caption & Credits

The Evolution of Space-Based ISR 

Aug. 10, 2022

Gathering intelligence about adversaries has been central to military strategy since the advent of war. Knowing your adversaries’ capabilities, order of battle, and intent can spell the difference between victory and defeat. Whether by means of human intelligence—spies and intercepted communications—or observation from a hilltop or, in the modern age, from the ultimate high ground of space, the ability to see what the adversary is doing is critical to understanding and, ultimately, victory. 

The first intelligence satellites sought to replace airborne platforms in locations where access was contested or denied. But as space-based imagery advanced, it enabled U.S. intelligence analysts to look deep and persistently at adversaries’ territory, often providing the first indications and warnings of military activity. 

Starting in 1954, in a schoolhouse in Los Angeles, Air Force Gen. Bernard “Bennie” Schriever, supported by a civilian team led by Si Ramo, began developing the means to reach space. The missiles they built, learning from the German V2 rockets, led to development of the Thor, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This was the time of the world’s first great space race. In the Soviet Union, Russian scientists were pursuing their own capabilities. When Russia launched the Sputnik satellite, it shocked and scared the U.S. Though less known, Russia had launched an ICBM in August of 1957. Many believed a nuclear attack was possible—even probable. With the memory of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor still fresh—it was not yet 20 years later—U.S. leaders wanted the means to monitor the Soviet Union’s missile activity and better understand the risks the nation faced. 

Military intelligence is the key to war; without it, you cannot win.Sun Tzu 

The U-2 program began in 1954, about the same time as U.S. ICBM development, making it the first of these new surveillance programs intended to fully inform national leaders about Soviet activity. The aircraft flew about 70,000 feet, high enough, it was believed, for the plane to be beyond the reach of Russian air defenses. That bubble burst on May 1, 1960, however, when a U-2 piloted by Air Force Capt. Francis Gary Powers, conducting a reconnaissance mission high over Soviet territory, was suddenly struck by a Russian SA-2 surface-to-air missile. Powers survived, was captured and held in a Russian prison, and eventually returned in a prisoner exchange. The shootdown forced President [Dwight D.]Eisenhower to order a halt to airborne photo reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. 

Eisenhower had another solution in the works, however: He had authorized development of space-based surveillance and reconnaissance, and the U.S. would soon have the means to gather intelligence from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Even if the U-2 couldn’t fly high enough, satellites in space could reach a whole different level. With that, the U.S. would have a crucial intelligence edge and the ability to gather data about its adversaries. The Air Force had been working on satellites since 1956 and it had learned to track and recover film-carrying re-entry vehicles. Corona began as a CIA program with help from the Air Force and, in 1961, the Kennedy administration authorized the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Working together, the Air Force, NRO, the Department of Defense, the CIA, and industry created amazingly complex imaging satellites. In 1963, Gambit provided the highest-resolution imagery yet from space, allowing the U.S. to see finer details for areas of interest identified by Corona imagery. Hexagon, first launched in 1971 as a replacement for Corona, provided more persistent imagery, packing 60-mile rolls of light-sensitive film and four return vehicles. 

Like Corona, Hexagon returned negatives to Earth in film return capsules, which USAF aircraft collected in midair near Hawaii, after which the film would be developed so the imagery could be studied and analyzed. The insights gained from these systems helped assuage fears of a “missile gap” with the Soviets in the development and deployment of ICBMs and enabled defense officials to act on facts rather than speculation. 

A JC-130 recovers the white cone of a Mark 8 parachute carrying film from a reconnaissance satellite. After a U-2 was shot down, the U.S. used satellite imagery to record the data. USAF

Yet this intelligence process was slow, taking weeks to months to produce useful insight. The next generation of overhead imaging sensors would be digital, allowing rapid transmission from space to Earth without the elaborate but time consuming and expensive process of retrieving a bucket of film dispatched from a satellite back to Earth. 

Since its inception, the NRO has leveraged space to enhance America’s understanding of its global challenges and gain strategic advantage. This, in turn, has enhanced U.S. national security. Yet having built the world’s best overhead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, U.S. space intelligence supremacy is now being challenged. America’s adversaries are investing money, training more people, and developing more resources and tools, both on the ground and in space, than is the U.S. China’s economic and technological strength and Russia’s willingness to exert power in ways not seen in decades, pose clear threats to U.S. capabilities in space.

The relatively new U.S. Space Force, the NRO, other defense agencies, and their partners in industry will have to work together in innovative ways to develop the tools and techniques that will keep the United States the undisputed leader in space and meet this challenge. 

Warfighter Support

Overhead ISR space systems collect and process signals and imagery for a wide range of activities in support of our regional warfighters: Maintaining order of battle and situational awareness; monitoring adversary activities and specifically their weapons and troop movements; developing highly accurate targeting data; providing indications and warnings and performing battle damage assessments.

Surveillance and reconnaissance satellites play an even more critical role today, not just in providing data for intelligence assessments of a strategic nature, but also in the rapid response needs of today for national security. While intelligence estimates remain a key element of the mission of these satellites, the mission has expanded from the strategic arena to more time-sensitive operational and tactical levels of support. These rapid-response requirements demand persistence to identify threats that can come from anywhere, at any time—from mobile launchers, ships, submarines, aircraft, and even from space. The limited number of sophisticated satellites that can provide exquisite imagery (the mainstay of the NRO) has historically limited their ability to provide global persistence.

In 1980, Congress directed the Pentagon to establish the Defense Reconnaissance Support Program (DRSP) to “improve the application of satellite reconnaissance support to operational military forces and create a mechanism through which tactical support enhancements to the NFIP [National Foreign Intelligence Program] could be identified, validated, and funded.” DRSP resources and management mechanisms were tasked to:

  • Modify or augment intelligence satellite systems for the primary purpose of supporting military operations;
  • Acquire and operate satellite reconnaissance systems to fulfill validated requirements to support military forces;
  • Design systems for dissemination of satellite reconnaissance imagery products to the Unified and Specified Commands and appropriate Joint Allied Commands and assure compatibility with service tactical architectures.

The U.S. also was able to leverage burgeoning commercial imagery providers to fill some of the gaps in satellite coverage, providing ground commanders with information on potential enemy positions. Archived satellite imagery was merged with more recent imagery to identify changes over time, influencing targeting and enabling ground commanders to concentrate their forces on potential enemy hide sites. 

Staff Sgt. Neil Holdren and Capt. Kevin Mahar run a maintenance inspection on an antenna feed. USAF, and now USSF, has for decades understood the importance of space surveillance. Staff Sgt. Melissa Koskovich

Military commanders in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-1991) often referred to them as the first “Space War,” because it marked the first time space-based capabilities were used to support terrestrial forces during conflict. A dozen years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom underscored how much progress had been made, as space overhead imaging capabilities were more tightly integrated into operations 

Then known as the Military Intelligence Program, this effort was redesignated the Defense Space Reconnaissance Program (DSRP) in the late 1990s. In 2002, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz issued a new charter for the DSRP requiring that every tactical defense space reconnaissance project had to satisfy, address, or align directly with the validated requirements of one or more of the following: 

  • Combatant command Integrated Priority List (IPL);
  • Approved Operational Requirements Document (ORD); Initial Capabilities Document (ICD), Capabilities Development Document (CDD) or Capability Production Document (CPD)
  • Combatant command capability gaps, defined by the Joint Staff; or
  • Other shortfalls identified by the Services and SOCOM that are preventing users from accessing and exploiting NRO Overhead Systems data.

One capability was Eagle Vision, a collection of deployable satellite downlink stations that processed commercial satellite imagery in near real time. Eagle Vision used satellite overflight modeling software to determine which commercial space-based sensors could view areas of change. In one case, for example, regional commanders used image comparison to identify mass gravesites near Baghdad, Iraq. 

Deployed to the United Arab Emirates in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Eagle Vision provided an in-theater solution that could leverage commercial satellite imagery in a fast-moving tactical situation in just 12 hours—half the time it would take using conventional means to gather those images from commercial vendors.

Today, the NRO is focused on delivering responsible and agile space-based ISR and working with partners in the Intelligence Community to enhance overhead tasking, collection and data processing capabilities, including using artificial intelligence and machine learning to fuse and make sense of diverse data sets.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allies have leveraged commercial space-based ISR to provide critical support to Ukraine. 

 The Modern Imaging Marketplace

As the commercial imagery marketplace has grown, the number of U.S. national security assets has stayed relatively flat. From 2005 to 2010 commercial satellites nearly tripled; from 2010 to 2015, they quadrupled; and from 2015 to 2022 they nearly quintupled. As a result, “remote sensing” has evolved from being something only nation states could provide to now, where 40 percent of the remote sensing satellites in orbit are privately owned—and less than 10 percent are owned by the U.S. government. Today, more than 60 companies are pursuing space-based data collection and some 50 countries own space-based collection assets. 

Commercial providers have realized that excellent, spectral, radiometric, and temporal resolution (revisit rates) can be complementary or in some cases more valuable than high spatial resolution. To achieve this capability, companies are deploying large numbers of small and mid-size satellites. A handful of commercial companies are deploying constellations with meaningful numbers and decent revisit times, but achieving true persistence will require the ability to connect multiple constellations using “plug-and-play” interfaces. Ensuring multiple players survive and flourish in this business is a worthy goal for U.S. policymakers.

In 2021, the Space Force approved rapid experimentation and prototyping for a new Tactical Space Layer, which will take advantage of commercial satellite imagery to improve battlespace awareness and expand its beyond-line-of-sight targeting capability. Industry innovation will yield new solutions to help make that possible. Based on experience in Ukraine, for example, Maxar is now offering mobile terminals that provide direct access to commercial imaging satellites in real time. This could enable military units in the field to downlink electro-optical (EO) imagery from Maxar’s satellites, combine it with radar imagery from Canadian satellite firm MDA’s Radarsat-2 and possibly other commercial providers, and use it as a tactical operational tool.

Tasking, Collection, and More 

The biggest beneficiaries of new commercial capabilities are tactical/theater warfighters, and international partners, both of which historically were under served by space-based imagery intelligence (IMINT) providers. Tactical users need persistent coverage and near real-time data delivery. By using multiple systems, they can assure persistent coverage. International partners—even Five Eyes partners—are frustrated by delays in sharing imaging intelligence. 

Tactical intelligence (TACINT) users today have growing needs: 

  • Immediate operational support. Users want “over the hill” insight in as close to real time as possible—meaning seconds or minutes—to identify the source of ground fires or movements beyond the line of sight;
  • Tactical planning support. Users want the ability to detect operational shifts, such as aircraft, ship, or ground unit movements, an influx of fuel trucks, or new construction, which could indicate changing plans or capabilities;
  • Ground and air order of battle and location of ground fires;
  • Moving target indicators. Air users want actionable ground moving target indicators (GMTI) and air moving target indicators (AMTI); 
  • Insights provided by fused intelligence, such as fused electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar products or multi-spectral products that make use of EO and infrared images (post processing for various domains);
  • Multi-Int fusion (EO/SAR/IR/RF/SIGINT/ELINT). RF, signals, and electronics signatures can tip ISR systems to use high-resolution modes to identify and detect dark ships, for example, as part of maritime domain awareness missions; 
  • Overhead persistent Infrared (OPIRP) can “tip” a system to collect more detailed data about an topic of interest. Thus, the fidelity of new staring sensors can help identify dim ground targets as well as larger test sites.

The United States is only beginning to leverage all the sources of space-based ISR capability now being developed. While no single company can provide the truly persistent coverage of all the ISR needs of any given government customer, the combination of available resources means combined capabilities can be truly amazing. 

Current Status

“The Space Force has increasingly looked to partner with the private sector as companies and investors pour into the space industry. I’ll tell you, I’ll bet on our commercial industry any day.”

—Gen. John W. Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations 

As we move to an era where we will combine the scarce but exquisite resources of the NRO with the wide and varied commercial resources being developed commercially, the Defense Department will need a different approach to the combined tasking, collection, processing, exploitation, and dissemination (TCPED) of satellite intelligence. As the battlefield has turned from localized areas of interest to multiple simultaneous areas at the same time, tactical timelines have shrunk from days or hours to minutes and seconds. Shortening the delay from sensor-to-shooter is critical. The concept driving joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) is intended to give U.S. forces considerable advantage in the and Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) decision loop

Terms and Definitions
Intelligence (I) is the gathering of information to understand an adversary or situation;
Surveillance (S) is performed over large areas over long periods of time, with no specific targets in mind;
Reconnaissance (R) is performed over specific targets at specific times.

The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the Army’s Project Convergence and  Remote Ground Terminal (RGT) TITAN (bringing together systems for the next generation of intelligence), and the Navy’s Project Overmatch all seek to develop all-source ingestion nodes and rapid information processing and dissemination to accelerate warfighting commanders’ decision process. 

Bringing each of the services’ battle management approaches into a concerted whole is the driving concept behind joint all-domain command and control (JADC2). Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall sees this clearly. “The Army’s Project Convergence initiative is driven by the need to develop required technologies for interconnected, multi-domain sensor-to-shooter relationships. The Navy’s Project Overmatch effort is designed to develop and integrate resilient command-and-control (C2) networks to improve and accelerate the teaming of their own unmanned air, surface, and underwater vessels with manned weapons and platforms,” he has observed. “We want to be able to integrate well with the Navy and take advantage of what their sensors can find and provide data from our sensors to the Navy as well. In Europe, it tends to be more an air, ground, [and] space theatre … so there we want to be working closely with the Army. However, all the services are very serious about doing this in a joint fashion.” 

The Army has demonstrated its progress fusing sensor data during its first two Project Convergence exercises at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. Both demonstrations reinforced that access to space-based sensors and in-theater tactical ground stations is “absolutely essential.” 

The Army has experimented with providing real-time satellite imagery to the warfighter in recent years with its pathfinder Kestrel Eye program. The small satellite experiment showed how the Army could task a sensor in LEO to take images of the battlefield and then downlink them to the warfighter in real time. However, a single LEO satellite can only provide a small amount of relevant coverage each day due to its orbit. Our ground forces need more than that. While Kestrel Eye simply produced images and delivered them to the warfighter, the Army needs to be able to detect and track ground level threats automatically. The goal is to get targeting solutions for beyond line-of-sight ground threats to the warfighters on the battlefield in real time through a tactical data link like Link 16 or through DCGS. Instead of just delivering images to warfighters, the goal is to deliver targeting solutions to the warfighter based on those satellite images. To get the persistence we need we need to combine the exquisite NRO assets with the potential persistence provided by the large number of commercial imaging companies.

“We are going to be working closely with the [Intelligence Community] on this, and we are going [to] be talking to the other services, and we are going to try to take a leadership role to make sure joint operational requirements for future space-based intelligence systems and platforms, and we’re moving down the path to satisfy [requirements] for all the services,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall 

The United States military recognizes three distinct levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic. Together, they link tactical actions to achieve national strategic objectives. There are no finite limits or boundaries between these levels, but the distinction between them helps commanders design and synchronize operations, allocate resources, and assign tasks appropriately. The strategic, operational, or tactical purpose of employment depends on the nature of the objective.

Three Levels of War
The Strategic level of war has the longest time horizon and involves national (or multinational) guidance and resources to achieve national- or theater-level objectives. The strategic level of analysis would analyze any actions taken that involve national (or multinational) guidance, resources, or objectives and end state.
The Operational level of war is the process of linking strategic goals and objectives to tactical goals and objectives. The operational level of war has a relatively shorter timeline than strategic, but longer than tactical and involves planning and execution of campaigns and major operations using operational art to achieve military objectives. The operational level of analysis would analyze any actions taken that involve operational art and planning and execution of campaigns and major operations. 
The Tactical level of war involves the planning and execution of battles and engagements by the ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat elements in relation to each other and the enemy to achieve combat objectives. This encompasses the activities associated with the speed of warfare.

Fortunately, with the formation of the USSF, in addition to their close partnership with SSC, they have forged a strong partnership between the USSF and the NRO, and between the USSF, the NRO, and the Army. They have signed a Memorandum of Agreement to assure the Army, Intelligence Community, and USSF are totally integrated on space-based Tactical ISR (TacISR). The Space Force and the NRO are working together closely to fully define the warfighter’s tactical ISR requirements and close this tactical space-based overhead intelligence gap and support the evolving operational environment, as it changes almost daily.  

USSF’s Space Systems Command has multiple initiatives to encourage innovation and simplify and accelerate the contracting process to move commercial systems into the national security space ecosystem and break barriers to entry for new companies. These include: 

  • Commercially Augmented Space Inter-Networked Operations (CASINO) program. In conjunction with the Blackjack program, CASINO is working with PredaSAR on a project to integrate a government-furnished optical communications terminal. In addition, they could incentivize commercial players to start integrating government-compliant optical crosslinks on their platforms. The Space Development Agency plans a similar inter-satellite demonstration with Capella Space.
  • The “Commercial Services Office.” This encompasses its commercial SatCom office to expand its scope across all USSF missions, including ISR. 
  • “Front Door.” This program focuses on reducing barriers to entry, building innovation and providing a bridge path to access Space Works, the Space RCO, Space Safari, Space Digital Ecosystem and Integration (SpaceDEN), Hack-a-sat, and others.
  • Reverse industry days to engage the commercial ISR industry base. 

The objective, in the words of SSC Commander Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein: “Exploit what we have, buy what we can, and build what we must.” SSC is trying to leverage commercial solutions where possible and ensure investment isn’t wasted through duplication of effort. 

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) has given the role of integrating joint space requirements to the U.S. Space Force, and the U.S. Space Force JROC member, Gen. David D. Thompson, Vice Chief of Space Operations, is spearheading the effort to develop this role, with Secretary Kendall and CSO Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond providing advocacy and oversight. One of the first mission areas the Space Force is using to develop this role is tactical ISR and targeting. It is engaging the services and combatant commands to fully understand and document joint force needs, with the NRO and members of the broader Intelligence Community partnering in the effort. 

Ultimate High Ground 

“We want to leverage commercial in a significant way. It is a huge national advantage for us.”

—Gen. John W. Jay Raymond, CSO, USSF

Successful military operations depend largely on surveillance and reconnaissance. Having timely, accurate intelligence improves situational awareness, mission planning, and damage assessment. While some reconnaissance can be accomplished with aviation assets, persistent surveillance, especially over denied areas, can only be feasibly and effectively provided from space. To leverage satellite image intelligence, combat units require reliable, scalable, secure, high-performance digital infrastructure ensuring reliable, secure access to satellite-imagery assets to turn them into actionable intelligence—an important advantage in any warfighting scenario.

Space is a critical element in the operational planning and the tactical sensor-to-shooter kill chain. Commercial space imagery and electronics intelligence capabilities continue to expand, and their growing diversity and technical performance makes them increasingly valuable. The U.S. National Security Space establishment—the Space Force, U.S. Space Command, the NRO, and the Space Development Agency—are collectively focused on integrating commercial space capabilities into the military’s kill chains more expeditiously. Inevitably, these new capabilities will also face new threats: electromagnetic, kinetic, and cyber. Threat awareness and defense will be necessary. 

As Raymond makes clear, “This is not a time for patience. This is a time for action.” America’s adversaries are moving very fast. The United States must move faster still.                                                                                                   

Commercial Space Innovations: Unlimited Potential
Industry is developing new space-based surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities at a prodigious rate across every sector of sensor technology. 

Visible Sensors

Planet has a 150-satellite constellation in space with the goal of being able to take an image of the entire Earth each day. Maxar is working on its next-generation constellation called WorldView Legion, which reportedly will be able to revisit some locations on Earth up to 40 times per day. BlackSky has a fleet of high-resolution (80 cm) satellites with intraday revisit rate collection. SatRevolution is seeking to deploy large satellite constellations for electro-optical imagery. Maxar, Planet, and BlackSky have contracts in place with the NRO for their data.

Space-based Radar

Companies such as Capella, PredaSAR Corp, ICEYE, Umbra Lab, XpressSAR, EOS, NeoSAR, TerraSAR, Terresa-X, TanDEM-X, Cosmo-SkyMed, RADARSAT, and Synspective, are developing commercially owned synthetic aperture radar satellites, which can take imagery of the Earth through different atmospheric conditions during the day and at night. In June, Capella Space announced a cooperative research and development agreement with the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA), and in October 2021, they signed a study contract with the NRO and is currently providing radar imagery to the government. Iceye has 13 satellites currently on-orbit. Capella Space now has seven satellites on orbit. ICEYE has established a CRADA [Cooperative Research and Development Agreement] with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Technical Center (SMDTC) in June 2021 and expects to have a CRADA with NGA by April 2022. Airbus U.S., ICEYE U.S., PredaSAR, and UMBRA also have NRO study contracts.

Infrared and Hyperspectral 

Companies are also proposing remote-sensing satellite systems, with technology that could theoretically identify chemical composition, which might help agricultural conglomerates better decide what crops to plant in which fields but also can be used to spot a camouflage tarp hiding a weapon system. In 2019, HySpecIQ was awarded a contract with the NRO for a commercial hyperspectral imaging study. Other commercial providers include Teledyne, Orbital Sidekick, and Hypersat.

Multi-phenomenology services

Maxar is doing this with several partners to combine their GEOINT capability with other sensor types. Ursa is developing an application for leveraging SAR from many providers in a software application. And start-up MINT is looking to put up constellations of satellites with EO, RF, and SAR sensors on separate vehicles to tip/cue each other within the same commercial family.

Space-based Electronics and SIGINT

HawkEye360 and Aurora Insight offer satellite-based radio frequency (RF) remote sensing collection. By detecting and geolocating a range of radio frequency emitters, this could be valuable for transportation tracking and search and rescue, among other applications. Hawkeye 360 won a contract from the NRO in 2019 and is currently providing RF remote-sensing data to several mission partners for use-case validation and some operational support. Using this technology, Hawkeye 360 began monitoring GPS interference in late 2021; shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, they detected Russian jamming of GPS signals around Chernobyl before Russians forces attacked. USSF’s Space Systems Command is developing tools for detecting, locating, and ultimately mitigating radio frequency and GPS interference. Maxar has identified cemetery extensions near Maripol, Ukraine, at both Vynohradne and Manhush.

RF Signatures 

Commercial RF developers Spire (a U.S. concern) and Kleos (an international partner) are building constellations to sense and geolocate RF signatures for applications like tracking ships. They use RF “externals” (dots on maps representing frequencies) to map out and geo-locate RF threats.                                              

In 2014 China occupied and built an artificial island on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, capable of supporting nearly any type of aircraft in China’s inventory. While some reconnaissance can be accomplished with aviation assets, persistent surveillance, especially over denied areas, can only be feasibly and effectively provided from space. Google Earth

Thomas “Tav” Taverney is a retired Air Force major general and a former vice commander of Air Force Space Command. He is a senior executive with Leidos involved in developing space payloads