WASHINGTON — A board of scientific advisers is looking at ways the Air Force can use satellites to track moving targets on the ground and in the air — a task traditionally performed by aircraft.

Air Force officials are concerned that the radar-equipped aircraft it uses to track and engage moving targets aren’t fit to fly in contested environments. In the last few years, the service has been working with the Space Force to better understand what role satellites could play in that mission. Former Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond said he expected initial funding for a development effort to begin in fiscal 2024.

According to a recently released study outline, the service tasked its scientific advisory board with assessing the feasibility of using both aircraft and satellites in low Earth orbit, about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) above the planet surface, to track moving targets.

“Current commercial efforts are driving down the cost of proliferated LEO satellite constellations with constellations comprised of thousands of satellites proposed and hundreds already launched,” the study outline states. “In addition, alternative sensing approaches and innovative concepts, at the individual satellite level and at the overall systems level, may help to drive down the cost of satellites.”

The external advisory board was created in 1944 and provides expert scientific analysis on Air Force and Space Force technology challenges. For this study, the board will consider what requirements are necessary for a future moving target indicator, or MTI, capability as well as the risks and challenges associated with using satellites and space-based radars to perform the mission alongside aircraft. It will also propose near-term and future funding strategies for these systems.

Along with the MTI assessment, the scientific advisory board is pursuing three other studies in fiscal 2023 that will explore advanced air and space mobility concepts, development and operational testing approaches, and resilient air operations. The board will brief Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on its findings in each topic area in July and publish reports in December.

The air and space mobility study will focus on how concepts like autonomous refueling, space cargo transport and innovative tanker designs could improve mobility in a future war with China.

“Due to the wide geographic expanses and limited basing availability in the Pacific, increasing Combat Air Force reliance on distant bases will place increased demands for aerial refueling offload,” the study description states. “Similarly, base resilience concepts including Agile Combat Employment and reduced runway dependence will rely heavily on inter-theater and intra-theater airlift for deployment and sustainment.”

The board will assess the Air Force’s tanker and airlift capabilities and shortfalls and recommend science and technology investments in those areas.

For the resilient air operations study, the service wants the board to assess current threats to bases in the European and Pacific regions and consider options for air defenses that have a “favorable cost exchange ratio.” Air Force wants a review of a range of technologies, including directed energy weapons, lasers, non-kinetic interceptors and “runway independent aircraft technologies.”

The board’s testing study is geared toward ensuring the Air Force’s processes for assessing new capabilities is moving quickly and efficiently.

“In an era of competition with China, which is developing and introducing new operational capabilities at a high rate, there is concern that the [developmental and operational testing] enterprise is not helping to provide operational capabilities rapidly enough to adapt to the changing technological and competition environment,” the outline states.

The study will survey technology advances like artificial intelligence and modeling and simulation that could improve the Air Force’s testing enterprise. It will also identify technology and process issues in the service’s approach.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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