WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is looking to bolster its ability to detect and track potential threats in the geosynchronous equatorial orbit, a critical orbital perch for the nation’s most important military and intelligence satellites.

With a growing need for better “space domain awareness,” the Pentagon wants additional satellites acting as eyes and ears in the GEO belt, about 22,300 miles above the Earth, said Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of U.S. Space Command.

U.S. Space Command, based in Colorado Springs, is responsible for military operations in the space domain.

The U.S. Space Force is modernizing ground-based sensors, such as a deep space radar, that are critical to monitoring the GEO belt, Whiting said March 20 during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon. 

Ground sensors, however, are limited by distance and weather so the Space Force and the intelligence community are working on new surveillance satellites to keep a closer eye on potential threats such as anti-satellite weapons. 

“China has built this ‘kill web’ using space enabled capabilities over the Pacific where they can find, fix, track, target and engage U.S. and allied capabilities terrestrially and in space,” Whiting said. In response, he added, better awareness of what spacecraft are in orbit is critical.

Whiting on March 21 testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee. He told lawmakers Space Command submitted a $1.2 billion list of so-called “unfunded requirements” that were not included in the recently submitted 2025 defense budget. 

Congress requires military leaders to submit these lists annually, shortly after the president’s budget is released.

Whiting said Space Command’s unfunded requirements include a number of systems needed to track and target potential threats. 

SilentBarker a ‘critical program’

Whiting told reporters that earlier this week he paid a visit to the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia. Officials from the agency that operates the nation’s spy satellites briefed him on the classified “SilentBarker” satellites that monitor the GEO belt.

“SilentBarker is a very important program for us,” Whiting said. “That’s about providing indications and warnings of threats in the GEO belt. That is a program we want to see continue.”

SilentBarker is a joint initiative between the National Reconnaissance Office and the Space Force. The first iteration of SilentBarker launched two payloads in September 2023. A second set of payloads are in the works. 

SilentBarker focuses on “indications and warnings,” or raw data that provides clues or red flags. The Space Force also deploys Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites, or GSSAP. These are imaging satellites that perform detailed observation of other satellites. While SilentBarker provides initial warnings, GSSAP satellites are more for investigative purposes. They can maneuver close to other satellites in GEO and gather more information. 

A new constellation for GEO surveillance

Looking ahead, the Space Force recently issued a request for information for industry capabilities to develop GSSAP-like satellites capable of detecting, tracking and characterizing objects operating in and around the GEO belt.

A future constellation would consist of free-flying satellites outfitted with electro-optical sensors, capable of being refueled in orbit, and able to conduct rendezvous and proximity operations.

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...