Earlier this month, General Bradley Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations at the United States Space Force, told U.S. lawmakers that China currently has some 347 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites in orbit that work in conjunction with positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) and SATCOM satellites to enable Chinese kill-chains and long-range precision-guided attack.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, General Saltzman also warned that China’s space capabilities could allow it to monitor, track, target, and attack U.S. forces in conflict – and he added that Russia is testing and fielding orbital anti-satellite systems, extensive cyber capabilities, and terrestrial anti-satellite missiles, jammers, and lasers.

The domain of space is one that must be taken as seriously as land, sea, and air.

To that end, the United States Space Force, the sixth and newest branch of the United States military, has requested more than $1.2 billion to keep its highly-classified Long Range Kill Chain program running through 2028. The program is aimed to field advanced satellite payloads that could track moving targets in space.

Replacing Part of the Air Force Mission

The Space Force project is also on track to take over at least part of the mission that has been performed by the United States Air Force’s E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft, which are now set to be retired next year.

Each E-8C is a modified Boeing 707-300 series commercial airframe extensively remanufactured and modified with the radar, communications, operations and control subsystems required to perform its operational mission. The most prominent external feature is the 27-foot (8 meters) long, canoe-shaped radome under the forward fuselage that houses the 24-foot (7.3 meters) long, side-looking phased array antenna.

A total of 17 of the E-8Cs were built, and 16 remain in service.

A portion of the ground-moving target indicator mission is now on track to be shifted to Space Force satellites. Even as the current mission is performed by aircraft, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites – employs space-based systems in surveillance missions. 

The Space Force’s Eyes in the Sky

Instead of aircraft, the Space Force is exploring how satellites can fill the role. According to new budget documents, it has two components, a ground moving target indicator (GMTI) sensor, also known as “MTI;” and “auxiliary payloads” being developed with the NRO. GMTI radar can provide continuous wide-area surveillance coverage of ground-moving vehicles. Thousands of vehicles can be detected and tracked with each sweep of the radar.

The Space Force has requested $243 million for the fiscal year 2024 (FY24) to fund the project.

“Space-based GMTI systems will provide actionable information on adversary surface targets to the warfighter through the advanced battle management system,” the budget request noted. The service has sought to develop and field both the MTI sensor and payloads by the end of next year, yet, there will still be continuing funding through the next five-year future defense program for additional activities. The service has sought an additional $1 billion through FY28.

However, as the program is mostly classified, the released budget documents can only shed so much light on the development of the sensors.

Analysis of GMTI

Last year, the Space Force completed its analysis for the GMTI, and considered how it would replace the Northrop Grumman JSTARS aircraft that have been in service since 1991 – and which have been noted to be vulnerable to enemy air defense systems.

The Long-Range Kill Chain program will allow the U.S. military to harness crucial data from space, and to incorporate it into a more secure environment. It will also enable the Pentagon to sense threats and respond faster than its adversaries.

The military must now consider how many GMTI mission satellites are required to do the job.

“GMTI is not a one-for-one swap for the aging E-8 JSTARS that is about to retire, but rather an evolved weapon system that serves as the next generation moving target indicator for the warfighter. GMTI will be critical to tracking surface targets in Competition, Crisis, and Conflict environments. This will be accomplished from space, instead of from JSTARS aircraft which will not be capable of operating in a contested/non-permissive environment,” the budget documents explained.

The Department of the Air Force is committed to ensuring that the program receives the support it needs.

“We’re going to try to do this together [as] efficiently as possible to meet both operational and intelligence needs,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, while speaking at the McAleese & Associates Conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.

A final report is due in December.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.