TEL AVIV, Israel –Citing a persistent need among U.S. military forces, the U.S. Defense Department is moving ahead with a fast-tracked search for small, low-cost radar satellites and supporting ground systems that could be fielded as early as 2012, Pentagon documents show.

In parallel, the Pentagon is considering near-term purchases of data from international and commercial radar satellites now in orbit. Potential data sources include Canada’s Radarsat-2, the German SAR-Lupe constellation and the Israeli TecSAR satellite.

According to a U.S. Air Force request for information issued Aug. 20, the Pentagon is particularly interested in commercial and international satellites with demonstrated on-orbit performance. Nevertheless, the service invited responses from “all radar data providers and space radar system developers” capable of meeting the military’s needs.

Funding has been requested for the effort and an acquisition could begin as early as 2009, the solicitation said.

The solicitation is among several actions laying the groundwork for the proposed effort that were called for in an acquisition decision memorandum issued July 21 by John Young, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Young said that due to commercial and government investments in the United States and abroad, radar technology has advanced to the point that there are “attainable, near-term” options for a radar satellite system that is relatively low cost, less complex and yet “tremendously capable.”

“The Nation has attempted for more than a decade to produce a cutting edge space-based radar system, yet a myriad of reasons have resulted in the failure to operationally field such a system,” the memo said.

Earlier this year saw the cancellation of the Space Radar, a joint Air Force-U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) effort to develop a constellation of radar satellites that would serve both the military and intelligence community. The program fell victim to high projected costs and the inability of the Air Force and the NRO – which currently operates large and highly sophisticated radar imaging satellites – to agree on system requirements and control.

“Due to recent technology advances in the [Department of Defense], commercial and international industrial base, our Warfighters find themselves with the fortuitous opportunity to realize a capability that appears ‘good enough’ and is deployable in the near term,” wrote Young.

In his memo, Young tasked the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to refine mission needs currently codified in its Space Radar Initial Capabilities Document. Specifically, he directed the Joint Staff to lead a so-called Quick-Turn Capabilities-Based Assessment (CBA) to reconsider its own requirements in light of commercially available capabilities and those already prescribed in a separate document by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The Joint Staff effort is to be supported by the Air Force and coordinated with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to ensure that envisioned capabilities can be integrated into the spy community’s overall collection architecture.

Similarly, the memo directs the NRO and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to provide relevant technical analysis and assistance pertaining to ground integration concepts and means of “leveraging existing bilateral agreements with foreign partners.”

Young’s memo also called for demonstrations with commercial and international entities to explore operational concepts and address “gaps” identified in the Quick-Turn CBA; assessing the performance, capability and utility of radar data now available from commercial and international satellites; surveying market offerings and acquisition options that best meet “near- and mid-term needs for radar from the space domain;” and developing “concepts for a centrally managed, tactically oriented, and responsive tasking, processing and posting system” compatible with commercial and government radar satellites, both existing and planned.

A detailed acquisition strategy plan, including estimated schedules and required 2009-2013 funding, is expected to be reviewed by Young at the end of September. The plan will incorporate relevant material from industry responses to the Air Force request for information, which are due Sept. 8.

The Pentagon is willing to consider various acquisition options, including “cost-sharing arrangements with the government” or other ways to support critical schedule needs, the solicitation states.

In the past several years, several radar satellite systems have been deployed internationally that fit the descriptions outlined in the Pentagon documents: Radarsat-2 was launched in December 2007; the last of five SAR-Lupe satellites was deployed in July; and TecSAR reached orbit in January.

Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., is marketing a variant of the TecSAR, dubbed Trinidad, to U.S. government agencies under a partnership agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries, which designed and built the system.

Israeli program officials said the 300-kilogram TecSAR platform features a unique combination of in-orbit agility and electronically steered beams that allow it to cover large swaths of territory with each 90-minute orbital pass.

“Other available systems can more or less meet Pentagon performance parameters, but our added value is to provide maximum imagery and mission agility to the tactical commanders,” an Israeli industry source here said.

Tim Frei, vice president for business development at the National Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Space Technology, said the firm has been working with multiple U.S. government agencies to demonstrate TecSAR/Trinidad’s capabilities.

The proposed Trinidad, he said, “leverages flight-proven, low-cost, yet very capable” synthetic aperture radar systems that are available in the near-term to fulfill “longstanding, yet unmet needs of the military.” He added that Northrop Grumman views the Young memo and the request for information as positive steps toward a medium-capability radar system that is “ideally aligned with our ongoing Trinidad campaign.”

Steve Oldham, general manager of satellite missions and robotics at MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, owner and prime contractor of Radarsat-2, said his company is responding to the request for information and can participate as a data and a satellite provider. The Richmond, British Columbia, firm is just wrapping up an “extensive demonstration of Radarsat-2 capabilities for the U.S. military” under a contract awarded about a year ago, he noted.

MacDonald Dettwiler can offer data over the next few years and clones or improved versions of Radarsat-2 later on, Oldham said in an Aug. 28 interview. “We’d be in position to offer data straight away – we can start tomorrow,” he said.

Oldham said the solution for the U.S. government might not be limited to a single type of sensor but rather could entail different kinds of systems and technologies. “Radar comes in many shapes and sizes, and [serves] different users with different needs,” he said. “If you try to combine them all [on a single satellite] you end up with a program like Space Radar.”

Warren Ferster contributed to this article from Washington.