Posted inOpinion

Editorial: A New Day for Space Radar

Over the past several years, the Space Radar program has come to symbolize many things, prominently among them the persistent inability of the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence community to agree on a common set of requirements in which both sides see fit to invest.

Finally, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the impasse over this program has been broken. According to two senior U.S. national security officials, long-awaited intelligence community funding for the Space Radar will be included in the president’s 2008 budget request. U.S. intelligence budgets are classified, but Space Radar advocates have complained over the past year that the U.S. Air Force has been shouldering the entire burden of what is supposed to be a joint effort with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which buys and operates classified spy satellites.

The policy on this is clear: As decreed in January 2005 by former Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there will be one radar satellite imaging system serving the U.S. national security community. That includes everyone from intelligence and policymaking officials in Washington to military commanders in the field.

But as continuing disagreement over Space Radar requirements, operations and funding demonstrated, directives from on high take time to work their way down to where programs are built. Recent suggestions by NRO Director Donald Kerr, and Mary Margaret Graham, deputy director of national intelligence for collection, that Space Radar will be included in the classified portion of the U.S. national security budget request are an encouraging sign of progress in this regard.

That said, the lack of detail to date on the latest Space Radar plan is reason enough to stay cautious. It remains to be seen whether the Space Radar will truly be a joint program that is highly responsive to both tactical and intelligence users; or whether it will simply devolve into the replacement for the radar component of the NRO’s classified Future Imagery Architecture.

In the latter case, there would be little to cheer about: While the NRO appears to have made significant strides since the 1991 Persian Gulf War in making data from classified satellites available to military commanders, the fact that the Pentagon continues to push for Space Radar today suggests there still is much room for improvement in this area.

Moving target indication obviously is of great interest to the military, but in the case of Space Radar it appears to have been greatly oversold, at least as a near-term capability. Persistent global surveillance requires a satellite constellation so large as to be unaffordable, to say nothing of the ground systems that would be needed to ingest and make sense of all the data such a system would collect.

But if the Space Radar program is set up in a way that puts military commanders closer to the action in terms of satellite tasking and data distribution — to the point that they can plan operations based on the assumption that radar imagery will be there when needed — that would be a victory in and of itself. Such a system would immediately enhance the responsiveness and effectiveness of U.S. forces, and perhaps lay the groundwork for that coveted yet elusive global surveillance capability.

On another level, moving ahead with a truly joint Space Radar will speak volumes about the willingness of the military and intelligence community to work even more closely together. Given the budget outlook for the next several years, they really do not have much choice in the matter.