ORLANDO: The United States has boosted into orbit new spy satellites that mark “the most significant change to our overhead architecture in at least three decades,” said the head of military intelligence, Mike Vickers.
Vickers also said these National Reconnaissance Office’s satellites comprise “a truly integrated system of systems for the first time.” Sadly for you, dear reader, the well-known leader of the first war in Afghanistan – the one against the Soviets – did not share any other details. Instead, he delivered his speech and left the conference at speed.
I exchanged emails with a Pentagon source who offered this additional bit of information: “He was speaking about a new, but classified, overhead architecture that will provide greater persistence than ever before.”
For those who don’t speak intelligence-speak, that means the satellites can see more because they can look at an area for a longer period of time. Another source well versed in national security space issues was somewhat stumped by Vickers’ comments but offered this insight:
Perhaps, the source said, this is a reference to the new practice of sending aloft sensors and other instruments that share a ride on a satellite, known as hosted payloads. The classified sensors would go up on a commercial or on a government satellite. In the case of the NRO, the sensors would probably be highly classified electro-optical sensors (ones that take pictures an analyst can look at), very sensitive radars, or sensors that collect data from cell phones, telephones and radios, known as signals intelligence (SIGINT). This practice allows the NRO to place sensors in orbits it might not otherwise gain access to and lets it hide sensors in places a prospective enemy might not take into account.
(Some folks will know about this because Bety Sap, the new director of the NRO, will present a highly classified briefing on the topic Friday, Vickers said.)
In addition to the improvements in the NRO’s spy satellites, Vickers told Geoint attendees that there’s increasing work on machine-to-machine intelligence tracking. For example, a sensor surveys an area for a target and automatically notifies another sensor when the target is apparently spotted. A human is notified, confirms that the machine has found the target and tells the machine to automatically track. It does and, given the order, kills the target. In the intelligence world this bears the wonderful rubric of “activity-based intelligence.”
Couple ABI with recent comments by former NRO Director Bruce Carlson that signals intelligence collection has gotten so refined and is now so fast that if a suspect cell phone or radio is found it can be tracked and is accurate enough that it can used for targeting. Call your mistress, Sheikh al Qaeda, and if intelligence can confirm it’s you with a high probability, then they might find you, track you and kill you with much of the work done by sensors and computers.
Vickers went on to make an apparent reference to what most people call Long Range Strike (aka America’s new strategic bomber), which he called “the operational manifestation” of the strategic shift to the Pacific.
Senior Air Force officials say the bomber will be manned, but capable of flying unmanned. And LRS will probably include UAVs as part of its system. That UAV may be what Vickers envisioned when he said the US will develop and field “robust and resilient ISR capabilities” that can operate in so-called A2AD areas (anti-access/active denial), namely areas where the enemy has anti-aircraft weapons and the ability to jam.
That would mean a major shift from today’s Predator, Global Hawk and other UAVs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft for Air Force folks), which cannot operate in denied airspace because they can be jammed and pretty easily shot down. But, as Vickers didn’t offer many details, we are just trying to fill in the holes.