Space radar plans stay in flux

Interest in next-generation space radar remains high even if the method for obtaining new capabilities remains uncertain.

One of the firms to respond to the RFI was MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, British Columbia, which has been supplying DOD with space radar data for 14 years, said Steve Oldham, the company’s general manager of satellite missions and robotics. In December 2007, MDA launched its most advanced surveillance satellite, the RADARSAT-2, into sun-synchronous orbit. “What we would propose is that ultimately the government should build its own clone of RADARSAT-2, a clone of course being a very low-risk way of getting your own capability,” Oldham said.

When the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) canceled a Defense Department and intelligence community effort to launch a technologically advanced constellation of space radar satellites in spring 2008, few were shocked. However, a year later, it remains unclear what the two communities plan to do next, despite strong indications that both still want some sort of next-generation space radar capability.

Originally named Space Based Radar when it was conceived under Air Force management about a decade ago, before the NRO assumed primary responsibility, the Space Radar program had been showing signs of spiraling out of control before its official disbandment.

The Government Accountability Office had been dinging the program as technologically immature. Program officials estimated that the cost of developing and operating the constellation would run between $20 billion and $25 billion. However, the Congressional Budget Office found in a 2007 analysis that the cost spread alone between the CBO's own high and low estimates of different constellation configurations varied by as much as $28 billion and at the very least by $14 billion. Even NRO, shortly before the program’s cancellation, said the program was not affordable and promised to restructure it.

Meanwhile, support for the idea of a next-generation space-based radar constellation never went away.

Space radar imagery is highly valuable because it can penetrate weather and darkness. Proponents have hailed space radar as the ultimate surveillance tool — a giant, unblinking eye in the sky.

On March 12, 2008, about a week after NRO announced Space Radar’s death, Adm. Timothy Keating, head of Pacific Command, called it a more pressing requirement than ever before.

The United States does have space radar capability. NRO began launching a five-orbiter space radar constellation in 1988, said National Security Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey Richelson. One satellite burned up in the atmosphere in 1996. The last of the so-called Onyx satellites went into orbit from Cape Canaveral in 2005, according to his research. Technology advances and broadening demand for the capabilities of space radar, however, provided impetus for a new constellation.

Not long after NRO’s decision, DOD indicated that it wanted to increase space radar capabilities, according to a July 21, 2008, acquisition decision memo from John Young, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Young declared that “our warfighters find themselves with the fortuitous opportunity to realize a capability that appears ‘good enough’ and is deployable in the near term.”

Defense observers say Young’s memo and a follow-up Air Force request for information released Aug. 20, 2008, appeared to outline a path of purchasing space radar imagery from foreign governments and commercial entities with a plan to acquire their satellite technology and launch a cloned orbiter by fiscal 2012. A procurement process could begin as soon as fiscal 2009, the RFI states.

Northrop Grumman executives say they have also responded to the RFI and have joined with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to supply U.S. Southern Command — specifically the Key West, Fla.-based Joint Interagency Task Force South — with space radar data from the IAI-designed TecSAR satellite. TecSAR achieved orbit in early 2008, assuming a low-Earth orbit.

“They are very eager to include TecSAR in the mix and have gone to great lengths to accommodate that,” said Tim Frei, vice president of business development at the National Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Space Technology. A joint task force spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The company envisions selling to DOD a variant of TecSAR named “Trinidad.”

Other possible suppliers of space radar imagery and technology include the governments of Germany and Italy. Germany launched a five-satellite radar surveillance constellation named SAR-Lupe, the last orbiter becoming operational in July 2008. Italy began launching the first of four COSMO-SkyMed radar satellites in 2007 with the last likely to launch in 2010.

The question of what the government might do next in acquiring space radar capabilities grew more complicated in October when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sent its own RFI for space radar imagery. The RFI, though much less forthright than DOD's earlier document, hinted to some a desire in the intelligence community to pursue a separate acquisition model based on buying access to data rather than buying satellites. An NGA spokesman said the agency would have no comment.

However, DOD officials might have been saying the same thing. Joint military and intelligence community satellite procurement poses “insurmountable problems, and those problems are going to get worse as we look to the future,” Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, said Oct. 30, 2008, in a speech during an annual geospatial intelligence conference. Citing the canceled Space Radar project, Kehler added that “in essence, we’ve got more requirements than can be met with a single system.”

MacDonald Dettwiler’s Oldham said he thinks it is likely that different individual satellites — though possibly in the same constellation — could be dedicated to different user communities. That way, those who want wide-area surveillance, for which C-Band frequency satellites are best, wouldn’t have to compromise with those wanting high-resolution data, for which the X-Band is more suitable, Oldham said.

If you try to satisfy all those requirements within a single platform, “you end up with a horrendously complicated system, and then, of course, the price creeps up and programs like Space Radar becomes too expensive,” he added.

Whatever steps DOD and the intelligence communities decide to take in expanding their use of space radar capabilities, NRO’s decision in March 2008 does not appear to be the last word on space radar.

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