WASHINGTON — U.S. Army leaders have signed off on plans to explore the use of satellites in low Earth orbit to give soldiers dedicated surveillance, navigation and imaging capabilities.

The Army’s effort is called “tactical space layer” and is led by the U.S. Army’s Futures Command, based in Austin, Texas.

The Futures Command in an April 19 news release said it was given approval for “rapid experimentation and prototyping efforts for tactical space-based sensors with supporting ground-based equipment.”

One of the desired capabilities for the tactical space layer is positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), a service that is provided by the U.S. Global Positioning System satellites. The Army worries that adversaries in a conflict will jam GPS and want to have backup systems available. The Army also wants satellites for surveillance and reconnaissance.

“The tactical space layer will provide deep area sensing, rapid targeting and unmatched battlefield situational awareness,” said Lt. Col. Travis Tallman, director of the Future Command’s tactical space signature effort. “Leveraging the tactical space layer will further enable long range precision fires and ground maneuvers in GPS-challenged environments.”

“Space is an important component of battlefield dominance,” said Willie Nelson, who leads the Futures Command’s assured PNT team in Huntsville, Alabama.

The tactical space layer will help inform future programs of record and procurements, he said. 

The use of satellites is part of a larger project by Army Futures Command to connect ground forces with those that operate in the air, sea and space domains. 

In 2019, a tactical space layer “interagency memorandum of agreement” was signed by the Secretary of the Army, the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the director for defense intelligence.  

The Army Space and Missile Defense Command — which has been working on space experiments such as the recently launched Gunsmoke-J satellite — is supporting the tactical space layer effort, said Thomas Webber, director of the SMDC Technical Center. “As the Army proponent for space and high altitude it only makes sense that SMDC would play a critical role in delivering a tactical space layer for the Army.”

SMDC’s Col. Timothy Dalton said the tactical space layer is “the first big step to identify and establish validated Army requirements in the space mission area.”  

The tactical space layer will be integrated with an existing ground station called Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN) which the Army uses to process data from land-based and aerial sensors. 

The Army’s tactical space layer is different than the “Transport Layer” that is being planned by the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency and will be deployed in low Earth orbit starting in 2022. 

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...