The Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT) wants to equip U.S. combatant commanders with a sensor network that includes small satellites launched on demand, unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic eyes at land and sea chokepoints.

This “tiered system” would give theater commanders an electronic terrain map marked with enemy and other targets, Lloyd Feldman, assistant director of the Office of Force Transformation, said April 5 during a briefing at the Space Foundation’s 22nd National Space Symposium here.

“We’ll not only have the persistence of a satellite constellation, but we’ll also have proximity,” Feldman said. “We could put sensors on buoys or at chokepoints and use satellites to relay the information.

High-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles might prove the best way to keep tabs on a denied area like China, he said. “The key is the tiered system. Space is enabling, but it’s not all about space. Sometimes we focus too much on space.”

Such a system could cost up to $4 billion — or be cobbled together for just tens of millions of dollars if existing assets are used, Feldman said.

“We don’t have to wait for this to be a ‘program’ to get the capability,” he said. “This also would give more voice to combatant commanders in acquisition.”

The military needs to learn how to launch smaller satellites more cheaply and reliably — fast enough to fit into a battle rhythm,” Feldman said.

Among other things, this will require standardized spacecraft to put satellites into orbit, Feldman said.

That’s exactly what the Air Force has in mind, said Col. Richard White, commander of Detachment 12, the service’s main testing facility at Kirtland Air Force Base. The center tries to determine the effects of launch and orbital conditions on solar cells, thrusters and other subcomponents .

Detachment 12 is focusing on components that can fit aboard a proposed class of 181.4-kilogram satellites that is intended to reduce development and production time. Such parts have a better chance of seeing orbit than ones requiring purpose-built satellites, White said in March.

Detachment 12 also is looking at different ways to launch those satellites, such as deactivated Peacekeeper missiles. Other ideas include launching up to six small satellites on a single rocket .

Feldman said the OFT’s tiered concept would be a perfect fit for Detachment 12’s testing and development plans.

“It would be another tool for them. There’s less risk; it’s complementary with other systems already there. The important thing is we have to get this capability out there.”