Michael Vickers is the Defense Department's undersecretary for intelligence. (Defense Department)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is changing the way it uses its space intelligence-gathering assets, which would give the Defense Department the ability to watch over areas for long periods of time, a senior DoD official said on Tuesday.
While his comments were fairly vague, Michael Vickers, DoD undersecretary for intelligence, said changes in “overhead space architecture” will be “some of the biggest changes ... that we’ve seen in several decades.”
“It will be possible ... through techniques — such as activity-based intelligence and associated architecture capabilities to go with it — to have persistence we’ve never had before to where we can look at things for long periods of time,” he said during a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “You can imagine the benefits that will give us.”
Another “revolutionary” change is integration, Vickers said.
“Rather than having an overhead architecture ... that is a set of individual systems with supporting systems, we will have for the first time going forward a really integrated architecture that can tip and cue — and there’s tremendous benefits that can come from that,” he said.
Tip-and-cue refers to autonomously triggering a response to an action. For example, a satellite fixed on a house could give a “tip” to a second satellite or intelligence aircraft if someone enters or exits the house. If someone exits, it could order a satellite or unmanned or manned aircraft to track the person.
While Vickers comments were vague, they could mean one of a only few things, said Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consulting firm.
One is that National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite sensors are getting more powerful. The other is an increasing call to put these top-secret sensors — used only on government spacecraft — on commercial satellites, a concept called hosted payloads.
“The only new wave, new trend that I see that’s going to potentially have a huge impact is going to be hosted payloads,” Caceres said. “We could put up a lot more stuff, a lot more sensors [and] a lot more listening devices.”
As military satellites get increasingly more expensive to build and launch, the hosted payload options would dramatically lower the cost of launching dedicated satellites and widely expand the number of space-borne sensors orbiting the Earth. It would make it tough for an adversary to tell where the NRO sensors are located.
“We’re not going to know where NRO is putting its sensors,” Caceres said.
A disadvantage to using this method is DoD would not have full control of the satellite, Caceres said. But the advantage is DoD could pay a fee to place sensors on any US satellite scheduled for launch, assuming the company that owns the spacecraft allows it.
“Wherein the past you might put up a handful of new sensors every year, now there’s really no limitation because there’s dozens of satellites available out there going up all the time,” he said.
DoD is also looking to take some of the lessons it has learned for more than a decade of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and adapt them to what the Pentagon perceives as future threats, Vickers said.
“We’re focused as a strategy on adapting some of the techniques we’ve learned in counterterrorism where we have gotten incredibly precise, and apply that to these higher-end environments,” he said. ■