TEL AVIV, Israel — From a van parked outside Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) headquarters in Key West, Fla., a Northrop Grumman team and Israeli partners halfway around the world tasked, downlinked and delivered imagery from Israel’s newest TecSAR spy satellite — all in a matter of 15 minutes.
Twice a day for three weeks in June, the U.S.-Israeli team demonstrated their ability to put strategic synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery quickly into the hands of U.S. tactical commanders.
The curbside demonstration that ended June 21 was part of U.S. Southern Command’s Project Thunderstorm, an effort funded by the Pentagon’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office to identify and support emerging capabilities against asymmetric threats. According to the Pentagon’s May 2009 budget item justification to Congress, Project Thunderstorm aims to experiment with “next-generation detection, cueing, monitoring, tracking and handoff capabilities against asymmetric target sets.”
In addition to supporting JIATF operations, the document noted, Thunderstorm aims to encourage “greater cooperation with multi-agency and multi-national partners and identify improvements in [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] concepts” to be used by other U.S. tactical commanders.
Nearly $10 million has been budgeted for Project Thunderstorm in 2009 and 2010, $1.2 million of which went to the team of Northrop Grumman and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI), producer of the Israeli TecSAR satellite and its radar imaging payload. Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles is working with IAI to market TecSAR capabilities to the Pentagon.
“From the time the image was shot to the time we were looking at the processed picture was, on average, 15 minutes. … That was very important for the purposes of Thunderstorm, where the counter-narcotic scenarios required monitoring of small, fast-moving boats in the Caribbean,” said Jeff Grant, vice president and general manager for National Systems at Northrop Grumman.
He added, “That’s the thing we wanted to prove to ourselves and also to the users; that this kind of architecture – providing day/night and all-weather capabilities — could be very responsive. The demo validated the technical feasibility and our concept of operations. We proved it twice a day for three weeks.”
In the Key West demonstration — as in a debut presentation in late April for select members of the U.S. military and intelligence community attending the Responsive Space Conference in Los Angeles — Northrop Grumman used its deployable ground station to download and process TecSAR imagery.
The ground station is one of several self-funded initiatives developed under the Trinidad program, a Northrop Grumman-IAI effort to sell TecSAR imagery and Northrop Grumman-built versions of the Israeli radar satellite to U.S. government users.
“We had everything installed in a panel van; something like an ice cream truck,” said Jeff Sneller, Northrop Grumman’s Trinidad program manager. Similar in concept, but much smaller than the U.S. government’s Eagle Vision mobile imagery ground station, the Northrop Grumman truck is equipped to task and receive data from the Israeli Ministry of Defense-operated TecSAR.
“In terms of a commercial capability, this road-transportable ground station is quite unique,” Sneller said. “IAI provided the communications equipment to talk with the TecSAR satellite, and we provided virtually everything else, including the antenna, the SAR processing and exploitation capabilities, computers and other infrastructure.”
Under the concept of operations employed in Key West and in Los Angeles, tasking information was sent directly to Tel Aviv, Israel, which then uplinked commands to the satellite. However, in future demonstrations, the concept allows for direct tasking of the satellite from the Northrop Grumman truck via the co-located trailer-mounted antenna.
“We had tasking hardware and software at our site, and alternatives were in hand to send commands directly to the spacecraft from our antenna. But for purposes of the demonstrations thus far, the users didn’t care about the route. What was important was for the collection managers to have full discretion in choosing the location, quality and duration of the images to be captured,” Sneller said.
In a June 24 interview, an Israeli Ministry of Defense source said that the Israeli government is supportive of Northrop Grumman efforts to build interest in TecSAR capabilities, and is willing to authorize direct tasking once U.S. users demonstrate “more serious, concrete interest.”
“Once American users come to know the capability of our sensor, and come to appreciate our proven heritage in space, we expect the growing demand to translate into a line item program,” the source said.
An IAI executive said the state-owned firm as well as the Ministry of Defense leadership will continue to do all they can to support Northrop Grumman in efforts to obtain funding for the Trinidad program. “We’re enthusiastic about our partnership with Northrop Grumman, which is based on the low-risk, low-cost, high-performance benefits of TecSAR,” said Yossi Weiss, IAI corporate vice president and general manager of the firm’s Missiles and Space Division.
He added, “We’re hoping for additional opportunities to demonstrate how the satellite’s capabilities and our unique downlink and distribution concept can really make a difference in the tactical arena.”
In a June 25 interview, Grant acknowledged frustration at the slow pace at which the Pentagon is following up on a directive issued last year by John Young, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. In a July 21, 2008, acquisition decision memorandum, Young called for a fast-tracked search for small, low-cost radar satellites and supporting ground systems for fielding as early as 2012.
“Things move slowly, but my sense is that the opportunities remain high. But regrettably, that hasn’t yet translated into a definitive acquisition plan or a budget line in a given year,” Grant said.
He noted that it took eight years and repeated presidential decision memoranda before the government established a program for commercial electro-optical imagery and demonstrated its commitment to the commercial remote sensing industry. “We’re trying to gain that kind of credibility with this radar product that the [electro-optical] guys now have,” Grant said.
He added, “We’re witnessing a great deal of interest. Now we need to work to translate that interest into heat, then fire, and then budget for a program.”