WASHINGTON — Satellites from private space companies can image the Earth in hours and deliver high-resolution pictures at prices that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Arms control groups and other non-governmental organizations can independently observe what’s happening inside North Korea’s missile bases or on the battlefield in Syria.

Startups are developing mini-satellites that will stream full motion video from anywhere around the globe. A growing number of companies will begin launching radar satellite constellations in low Earth orbit.

Along with an explosion of remote sensing constellations is a booming artificial intelligence and analytics industry that turns raw data into relevant information. On the communications side of the business, at least four commercial space companies two to three years from now will have huge broadband constellations beaming internet services.

How does the Air Force take all that privately funded innovation, “include it in our scheme and program investments?” asked Lt. Gen. Veralinn “Dash” Jamieson, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

In the next two to four years there will be “tens of thousands of commercial satellites providing electro optical, infrared, radar and hyper spectral imagery that will be mapping the globe in minutes, available for anyone to purchase,” she said on Thursday at a Mitchell Institute event hosted by the Air Force Association.

“I’m talking about ubiquitous coverage,” Jamieson said.

The rise of commercial space did have an influence on the Air Force’s strategy and investment plan for the collection, processing and distribution of intelligence. Known as the “ISR flight plan,” the classified document was recently approved by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

“We want to work with industry,” said Jamieson. Because of the sensitivity of the contents of the ISR strategy, the Air Force will invite companies to discuss more details in private meetings.

The basic problem the Air Force is trying to solve is that its intelligence collection and analysis methods today are still very much from the pre-digital age: platform-centric and very labor intensive.

Deploying dozens of spy drones to collect video worked in “permissive” environments like Afghanistan where enemies don’t have countermeasures. The Pentagon last year issued a new national defense strategy that calls on the military to prepare to fight against advanced adversaries like China and Russia. That means a new approach to ISR, Jamieson said. “We need to maintain our competitive advantage. Our ISR enterprise is ‘airman intensive’ and focused on today’s fight. But what about the environment 10 years from now?:

The Air Force has relied on stand-alone aircraft that do “single int” collection. “When we go to exploit the data it becomes very linear, very time intensive and very man power intensive,” she said. “We are exquisite in a permissive environment. Do we have capability that can penetrate and persist in a contested environment?”

The answer is that a dramatic change will be needed in how the Pentagon acquires and applies technology. “We don’t want to just do a ‘modernization,’” she said. “We don’t want ‘old think’ with new tools.”

Space-based capabilities are viewed as essential but even more disruptive and transformative will be artificial intelligence.

“Space was not the biggest thing we saw. It was the machine intelligence piece,” said Kenneth Bray, acting Air Force associate deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“Machine intelligence will enable our humans, our sensors and our platforms,” he said. “It’s going to be the center of what we do.”

Bray said the ubiquitous coverage provided by commercial satellites is a huge opportunity the military should capitalize on. “For decades we had dozens of satellites able to attribute what our adversaries are doing. At the same time, however, our adversaries have been willing to go through the effort to hide from us what it is that they’re developing.”

They can’t do that as easily when there are hundreds of satellites in space, Bray noted. “When you reach thousands, you get to something truly interesting. That’s what we want to bring to this game.”

The ISR flight plan also looks at needed investments in the IT infrastructure. “Data has to be spread across the entire enterprise in all domains,” Bray said. “Our acquisition community is looking at how they can be more agile.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...