WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force acquisition officials are meeting with companies this week to discuss capabilities that could help the service as it looks to take on a new mission: tracking ground targets with space sensors.
The service, in coordination with the Air Force, has been studying options for future space-based tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities over the last year and expects to complete a year-long review this spring. As part of that work, the service is meeting with industry to better understand what sensors and data analysis tools are available in the market.
Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of Space Systems Command, said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington that the service will hold a “reverse industry day” on tactical ISR this week to connect program managers and company leaders. The format is different than a typical industry day, during which the government briefs companies on its plans for a particular program or mission. Instead, the service is inviting industry to provide details about the capabilities they’re developing.
“We’ll have the [program executive officers] and PMs in a room and industry now can come tell us what they can provide in the realm of tactical ISR,” Guetlein said at the May 18 event. “That allows us to sort of learn more about what’s out there that we may not be seeing.”
The National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency have traditionally taken the lead on space-based intelligence gathering and image processing. Growing demand for tactical ISR products coupled with reduced satellite production and launch costs have shifted that paradigm.
Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, the Space Force’s deputy chief of space operations, cyber and nuclear, told reporters May 19 that engagement with industry as well as the broader intelligence community is a key part of defining the scope of any future tactical ISR programs.
“You’d be silly if you didn’t ask industry, ‘Hey, what do you have that might fill some of these gaps? What do you have that might add these capabilities,’” Saltzman said during a Defense Writers Group event. “It’s imperative that we collaborate across the board.”
To further that coordination, the Space Force also established an integrated process team that’s working with the other military services to better understand tactical ISR requirements and provide options for addressing them.
Saltzman said the team’s work is ongoing, so he hasn’t been briefed on any results. There are a few capability gaps he said he’s confident will be raised through the process. The first involves balancing the need for data security and classification with transparency.
“There are things that need to be classified, and mostly that’s because it’s perishable information and we want to protect it as long as we can,” Saltzman said. “That’s not going to go away. But who can we share with and how do we share with them and what can we provide them? That will definitely come out as a gap.”
Data exploitation and processing is another capability gap, Saltzman said, noting that the amount of information these sensors can collect can overwhelm operators and the systems in place to manage it.
“Exploring artificial intelligence and machine learning and automation to help manage that data flow – I would be shocked if tactical ISR didn’t account for that piece of this,” he said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.