The U.S. Air Force is considering a
partnership with commercial satellite operators
that could help protect
the space-based capabilities that have become crucial to U.S.
fighting strategy, according to service and industry officials.


The partnership
, which would involve placing surveillance sensors on commercial communications satellites in geostationary orbit, was mentioned publicly by Air Force
Lt. Gen. Mike Hamel,
commander of the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, during a press briefing
in Washington
March 11.

Speaking at a breakfast sponsored by the Defense Writers Group, Hamel likened the arrangement
“a neighborhood watch program,” in which
the sensors would
track nearby objects and provide warnings of
“close approaches” to

“The reality is that the Department of Defense is the single largest customer of commercial space capabilities – communications, remote sensing systems and the like,” Hamel said. “We think there are a lot of opportunities for looking at some different kinds of strategic approaches and partnering, if you will, that will take that basic relationship of being already an existing customer to … a more collaborative way of sharing information, perhaps providing opportunities for new business ventures.”


The Air Force is studying
how the sensor-hosting arrangement would work and be paid for, as well as other data-sharing possibilities, at the direction of Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, Hamel said.


a satellite
likely would have little time to maneuver out of the way of an approaching object
, the hosted sensor concept might be more viable as a means of investigating on-orbit collisions than avoiding them,
according to Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. The Air Force also should
consider asking industry to share
more telemetry data
so that
the service could devote fewer resources to
monitoring the position
of commercial satellites, she said.


The transition from the Cold War-era, when the United States had only the Soviet Union to worry about in space, to the current environment requires new approaches and architectures for space surveillance, Hamel said.
a “much broader array of space actors
” to reckon with, the Air Force needs to give priority to integrating data from a variety of
platforms to create a responsive picture of the space environment, Hamel said.


A key piece of this diversified architecture will continue to be dedicated military spacecraft like the
Space Based Space Surveillance System pathfinder satellite, which is being built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., and expected to launch in spring 2009, Hamel said.


pathfinder satellite is intended to replace the aging Midcourse Space Experiment, which was launched
in 1996, primarily to test missile tracking capabilities, and has far exceeded its expected operational life.


“This for the first time will really give us a very agile ability to both search large volumes of space as well as
detect and track objects – such things as new satellites being placed in orbit,” Hamel said. “We [will] be able to actually observe the reflected light from the satellite [and] the rocket body as it travels from low Earth orbit to a higher orbit.”


Given the Air Force’s extensive experience with space systems, the service should officially be given the lead role for
space situational awareness
within the Pentagon, Hamel said.

“This whole notion of having space situational awareness is really about being able to operate and have freedom of operation in space,” Hamel said. “So we think it’s very important that that be focused and assigned clearly to a service that has the capacity to perform that mission.”


Having the lead role in space situational awareness would not give the Air Force exclusivity in that domain, Hamel said. Other U.S. military organizations like the Missile Defense Agency, which operates missile tracking sensors that also could track satellites, still would have a significant role to play, he said.