RAF FAIRFORD, England — As the U.S. Space Force eyes a new mission to track ground targets from space, the Air Force needs to make sure the foundational battle management system infrastructure is in place, according to the Air Force’s top acquisition official.
The two services have been conducting reviews and meeting with industry over the last year to define their distinct roles in providing tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and develop a plan for a space-based ground moving target indicator, or GMTI, capability. Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond said in January the service would likely request funding for a new program in fiscal 2024.
Those studies have concluded, and Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter told reporters July 16 they confirmed the important role space will play in the GMTI mission.
“Space is where we need to go,” Hunter said during a media briefing at the Royal International Air Tattoo here. “It is our expectation that we can deliver pretty quickly on those capabilities — and we need to.”
The Air Force is on a path to divest its primary GMTI platform, the aging E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, retiring its first JSTARS aircraft in February. Rather than develop a direct airborne replacement, the service is creating the Advanced Battle Management System to better share data from multiple sources and connect forces on the battlefield. That system will rely heavily on space sensors to provide ground targeting information.
Along with a future GMTI capability, the Advanced Battle Management System will leverage the Space Development Agency’s data transport layer, which is on schedule to launch its first satellites this fall.
Because ABMS will be providing the much-needed infrastructure to ingest the new inputs from space, Hunter said the Air Force needs to stay on schedule and be ready to “move the data where it needs to go” once the space sensors are on orbit.
GMTI is likely just the first step in an incremental process to provide more ISR capability from space. Though satellites won’t fully take over the mission, the military increasingly wants multiple data sources for a more complete understanding of threats.
Col. Eric Felt, who recently transitioned from his role as head of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate to a new position in the Space Force acquisition executive’s office, recently told C4ISRNET that while the GMTI capability is within reach, the military must work toward more advanced space-based ISR.
AFRL has been working behind the scenes on space-based tracking technology for years, and the Space Force revealed last year it had been working with the lab since 2018 on a classified GMTI program, which will lay the foundation for a future effort.
“There will be a growing space role over time,” Felt said in a June 24 interview at AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “To get it at scale, where you can see everything of interest, everywhere, all the time and in real time, that’ll take a little bit longer. But the basic technology building blocks will be there.”
Felt said the confidence from Air Force and Space Force leaders in the ability to conduct GMTI from space is “well justified” based on work AFRL has done to prove the technology. However, he noted that just because the technology is feasible, there will still be development hurdles.
“Even when you can see that there’s no technical barriers, that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he said. “It’s lots of engineering and little things along the way. We’re good at solving those, but it does take some time.”
Beyond GMTI, the Space Force is considering whether it can track airborne targets from space, a mission currently performed by the Air Force’s E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System. Space-based AMTI presents a harder challenge, and Felt said AFRL will play a key role in helping determine whether it’s feasible.