Star Wars



Flightline: Space-Based Radar Could Bridge Markets

by William B. Scott

(William B. Scott is Aviation Week & Space Technology’s Rocky Mountain bureau chief. He writes a monthly column for

Psssst! All you venture capitalists and well-heeled investors with millions poised to fuel your next great moneymaker, here's a hot tip: Forget those dot.coms. Grab a piece of the U.S. Air Force's nascent space-based radar. NOW, while you still can.

What's a "space-based radar" you say? It's the next orbiting, world-altering utility, analogous to the Global Positioning System that now provides navigation and precision timing signals for everything from airplanes to tractors and hikers. Some Air Force leaders think SBR will not only revolutionize the way ground, sea and air forces find and strike an enemy, but will have an equally profound impact on commercial business and citizens' daily lives.

The bare-bones concept that precipitated the Air Force's space-based radar program is essentially this: Put the Joint-STARS airplane, with its critical moving-target-indicator (MTI) feature, into orbit. Not exactly — but at least orbit the radar, which can see through clouds and darkness, detecting an enemy's movements deep in bad-guy territory. During Desert Storm, prototype versions of Joint STARS' MTI radar, mounted on refurbished Boeing 707 aircraft, were able to spot Iraqi armor, truck and other vehicle movements well inside Iraq and Kuwait. Coalition attack bombers could be directed against those moving vehicles, denying the enemy freedom of movement. Hence, the gruesome "Highway of Death" north of Kuwait City.

Imagine the same type of radar, complete with MTI, soaring silently in space, staring down at everything moving on Earth. A constellation of these could blanket the globe, giving military leaders instant clues about an enemy's — or potential adversary's — movements. Convoys and unit maneuvers would be instantly visible in North Korea, the Middle East or the current hot spot.

On the flip side, friendly or "blue" units also could be tracked closely, then rerouted in real-time as a battlefield situation shifted. From the dim interior of a control center, commanders would literally be watching the battle unfold on their computer screens, thanks to the God's-eye view provided by that orbiting radar platform as it sends detailed information directly to the center. This real-time picture could be invaluable to ground forces:

"Uhh, Hawk One, this is Big Eye. Looks like you have a column of tanks and trucks moving three clicks to the west of your position. They're moving fast, too. Either they're totally ignorant of your presence, or they're trying to flank you. Suggest you swing your M1s and Bradleys to a 280-deg. heading, spread out and prepare to hit these guys on the run. Break, break. Strike 42 (a pair of F-37 Joint Strike Fighters), I'm cueing your onboard radars to a column of fast-movers at bearing 110 deg., range 40 km. Proceed to target and halt that column with a couple of [air-to-ground] missiles, then standby while Hawk One cleans-up what's left."

The rear-echelon commander could then monitor his troops changing course, the fighters blasting the column's lead vehicles, and the friendly tanks ambushing the enemy, scoring a surprise pop-up victory. Without an overhead platform like SBR, the bad guys would never see the attack coming, totally unaware that they could be seen. Soon, lessons would be learned, and the deterrent value of knowing all movements, at all times, and in all weather might prevent an aggressor from ever leaving garrison. Fights prevented are always preferable to battlefield slugfests.

A real-time, large-area radar picture could mean the difference between winning and losing, of course. But having "information superiority" has an amplifying effect — fewer tanks in the field, smarter strategic and tactical moves, fewer losses suffered, no missed rendezvous in the middle of the desert at night, and...well, cheaper operations. (Have to keep those bean counters happy.) More good information equals smarter battlefield moves.

Obvious non-military uses of a Space-Based Radar include open-ocean air transport and ship tracking, timely search-and-rescue in remote regions when a commercial airliner disappears from a controller's scope, and ground-vehicle traffic monitoring. What's interesting, though, are the not-so-obvious potential uses of SBR.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, who transferred leadership of three major forces — the U.S. Space Command, North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Air Force Space Command — to Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart on Feb. 18, thinks an orbiting MTI radar system could have many more applications. Most we can't even imagine yet.

"Today, people might say: 'Who would ever want to use a space-based radar?' I know people said that 10 years ago about GPS. Who would ever use GPS for precision farming, for surveying [and] for timing signals in banking transactions? Space-based radar probably will go the same way. So, are there arrangements that could be set up early [in order] to get revenue streams from other users? I don't know what they would be — but we need to think about them. I think space-based radar will become a utility, just like GPS has," Myers predicted. The former CINCSPACE has been appointed vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Assuming hundreds of unforeseen commercial uses evolve for a future on-orbit space-based radar, just as they have for GPS, how should the high-cost SBR constellation be funded? And should users be charged for SBR data? Maybe so. The Air Force has paid for building, launching and operating GPS, and millions of people have benefited from the free signals beamed to Earth by those satellites. The Air Force will continue to provide those services, mainly because it has no other choice. It's virtually impossible to charge for GPS services now — even if anybody were brave enough to try.

SBR is a different animal, though. The entire program could be structured, from the start, to have synergistic military and commercial elements. A mix of government and private funds could underwrite the constellation's development and fielding, paying for the research and engineering needed for rapid advancement of technologies, as well as launch and on-orbit operational costs. Military users would get their combat- and national security-related data, but commercial partners would be free to sell radar information to buyers via the Internet, realizing a lucrative revenue stream. Over time, the original co-investment team that helped get an SBR into orbit would be repaid with a tidy long-term profit.

What would a commercial user do with SBR data? Most future applications are probably beyond our ability to foresee today, but the moving-target indicator feature of SBR opens some new possibilities. In essence, SBR/MTI would provide an image, but with the added dimension of highlighted movement. Maybe tracking the nightly pattern of truck movements on secondary roads, or studying the congestion of taxis, or counting the number of cars arriving at a huge factory between 8 and 9 a.m. would be of use to somebody.

A more-businesslike possibility might be counting the number of cars moving between Wal-Mart parking lots and certain housing subdivisions a week before Christmas. Which interstate highway interchanges see the most transient or local traffic on a weekend? Might these be good locations for a new chain of restaurants, tourist attractions or gas stations?

How many fields in western Kansas are populated by combines cutting wheat and trucks hauling that wheat to grain elevators in late June? How far do those combines move before they dump into a truck — an indicator of per-acre yield? Such information could help grain elevator operators alter their forecasts for needed storage and railcars in near-real-time, or allow commodity investors to get an early estimate of this year's wheat crop size.

Add powerful processing of radar data, and the possibilities are endless. Building-in a viable business model at this early stage of SBR development could ensure data products will have commercial value, translating into years of steady revenue.

Venture capitalists and potential investors will have plenty of questions to resolve, so resolving them with military planners, policymakers and SBR contractors today could avoid costly disruptions later. Just as commercial high-resolution imaging satellite companies did in the early 1990s, entrepreneurs and Pentagon chiefs will need to hammer out rules-of-engagement to ensure all parties are satisfied before SBRs are launched. And those questions won't be easy ones:

Will military partners "pull the plug" on commercial data streams during wartime? Combat commanders will have an almost insatiable appetite for SBR data when lives are at stake, so who gets priority? Will commercial firms have to accept some degree of "shutter control," ensuring companies do not sell valuable radar intelligence to an adversary? Will only certain areas of the Earth's surface be off-limits during contingencies, while others are fair-game for commercial purposes?

How all these issues are resolved will determine the feasibility of a space-based radar partnership between government and the private sector. Both parties should be motivated. Government budgets will have a tough time accommodating the costs of SBR development, launch and operation in the near future, so leaders should welcome outside money. Visionary venture capitalists, investment bankers and savvy financial wizards could have early access to one of the biggest future moneymakers in orbit — if they have the intestinal fortitude to jump onboard.

It will be interesting to see whether there's enough vision, courage, cash, tenacity and patience out there to turn a joint military-commercial space-based radar from idea to reality.


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