WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force imagery specialists during a recent military exercise in South America helped locate illegal fishing boats and track other activities using commercial sensor satellites. 

The exercise showed how unclassified data from commercial satellites can be leveraged for maritime security and other military applications, 1st Lt. McKenna Medina, head of the Space Systems Command’s surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking team, said in a news release Aug. 10.

A team from Space Systems Command  participated in the 2023 Resolute Sentinel exercise in Lima, Peru. Imagery and data analytics specialists from the United States, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, and the United Kingdom worked at Peru’s satellite imagery national operations center. 

The best part about commercial products is that they’re not classified, Medina said. “They give users the flexibility to share commercial data with international partners.”

Need for timely data

Despite a commercial boom of easily accessible satellite imagery — which allowed the U.S. government to openly release intelligence on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — DoD has struggled to incorporate these capabilities into military operations.

The Space Systems Command this year established a commercial services office to help support U.S. combatant commanders who need timely data

The commercial office’s program to procure data from commercial satellites is called SRT, short for surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking. It also has been referred to as “tactical ISR” (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) but the Space Force changed the term to convey that the SRT program is not trying to replace the imagery support provided by the U.S. intelligence community.

The Space Force plans to establish a unit within U.S. Southern Command, and the exercise served as a test for how future operations could be conducted with support from space assets, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Whitaker, Southern Command’s director of space forces. “Our hosts in Peru and Colombia gave us a world-class opportunity to test operational aspects of the future Space Forces Southern Component Field Command,” he said. 

Applications for commercial imagery

Gen. Laura Richardson, head of U.S. Southern Command, said space-based data can help address challenges in the region like deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. “Those problems and others that present security challenges in Southern Command — including illegal mining and illegal logging operations — can be identified from space … and that information can be shared among partner nations in the region,” Richardson said Aug. 4 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

During the exercise in Lima, U.S. and allies relied on satellite imagery to identify and locate a vessel suspected of illegally fishing in Peruvian waters. The suspected ships had turned off their radar and gone “dark.”

Satellite data also supported disaster planning by imaging a volcano in Colombia that showed signs of impending eruption. The Space Systems Command team captured commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data showing the conditions of the volcano in Colombia and compared it to data from a Peruvian volcano that had recently erupted.

Capt. Benjamin Berezin, SSC deputy branch chief, said it was “eye-opening to see partner nation imagery applications because it gave the team’s analysts new avenues to work with partners.”

Space Systems Command is trying to “showcase the benefit of commercial technology to combatant commands and partner nations,” said Col. Minpo Shiue, director of SSC’s Warfighter Integration Office. 

“We expect all combatant commands to seek out this capability,” he said.

The SRT program office is planning a six-month pilot project to assess U.S. Africa Command’s needs for commercial sensing and analytics products. 

Commercial Space Office

The Space Force leadership has made it a priority to take care of combatant commanders’ needs in a timely fashion, said Jeremy Leader, acting deputy director of the Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office.

The SRT program is intended to collaborate with the intelligence community “whereas we may focus a lot more on that timeliness piece, versus the more strategic intelligence piece,” Leader said Aug. 8 at an Intelligence and National Security Alliance forum. 

“The big difference between SRT and ISR is really focusing on that timeliness piece,” he said. “As we push for those types of solutions to be able to collect things in a timely manner, the more commercial capabilities that we can bring into that fold, the better we can address the timeliness gap.”

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...