A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off from pad 37B at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 5:18 a.m. EDT on June 22, 2023 in Cape Canaveral. The rocket is carrying a classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SPACE SYMPOSIUM 2024 — After decades of enjoying authority over how the US defense enterprise and Intelligence Community get access to satellite-gathered intelligence, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is in the midst of battle on two fronts to protect its turf in the heavens, each of which threatens to chip away at the storied agency’s founding purpose.

Breaking Defense recently reported on the NGA’s bureaucratic sparring with the Space Force over commercial satellite imagery acquisition rights. Now more than a dozen sources in the Biden administration, elsewhere in government and industry say another behind-the-scenes battle is brewing over a different key NGA mission: dissemination of intelligence from Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) sensors gathered by government satellites.

GMTIs are sensors, traditionally radar, that can track in near-real time objects of interest like PLA warships streaming into the South China Sea or Russian tanks on the move in Ukraine. The bureaucratic conflict centers on the question of whether NGA should remain the middleman between the satellite-derived intelligence and different interested customers in the military and IC, or, with the advent of large satellite constellations, whether it makes more sense for customers to order satellite tasking more directly through the Space Force.

In a statement to Breaking Defense, NGA Director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth defended his agency’s “deep expertise” as critical to the GMTI mission, and a White House official suggested there’s currently little appetite at the top to make any drastic changes to the way things have worked for a quarter century.

But sources described complicated machinations behind the scenes in which both the NGA and the Space Force are making their case, with the White House looking to broker a solution.

“NGA feels like it is being completely cut out of the loop,” said one former intelligence official. “Space Force is taking their combat support role in this case.”

Competing Views On Operational Concepts

The threat to NGA’s turf is being worked on outside of its offices, as sources say the core of the issue are ongoing negotiations between the nation’s chief spy-sat agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the Space Force over how to operate their jointly developed satellites to track and target moving objects on the ground.

The Air Force in the past has used aircraft to do that job, in particular, the aging E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) planes that currently provide targeting data to air-, ground- and ship-based weapons platforms. The service is retiring JSTARS, however, and has decided to replace the fleet in part with satellites — with the Space Force back in 2021 revealing that it was working on a classified GMTI development plan.

After several years of negotiation, the NRO, the Space Force and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last May finally came to an agreement on how to finance and acquire new satellites carrying GMTI payloads. Under the accord, the NRO buys the satellites, but uses requirements set by the Joint Force and Space Force funds. The Space Force also will be in charge of signing off on developmental milestones.

In recent weeks, senior Space Force officials have indicated that the two sides are finalizing an agreement on how to operate those GMTI satellites, which in essence would see the NRO take care of daily operations to run the satellites, with Guardians by their side managing tasking on behalf of combatant commanders in the field.

Space Force officials have characterized their responsibilities for the GMTI satellites — and, eventually, other moving target indicator satellites (MTI) designed to track airborne targets — as simply an extension to the heavens of the Air Force’s US Code Title 10 role in JSTARS. Title 10 governs military roles and missions, whereas Title 50 governs those of intelligence agencies. That said, there long has been a gray zone between the two.

“JSTARS was the air model, providing situational awareness to the combatant commanders from the air. What we’re doing is taking that air vision and elevating it into space, so it is no different,” Gen. Michael Guetlein, Space Force vice chief, told the annual McAleese Defense Conference on March 7. “From a Title 10 perspective, we have the exact same responsibilities to provide situational awareness to the battle commander on tactically relevant timelines.”

In years past the NGA would play a key role in the process: tasking satellites to cover what government customers want and then providing them, based on a complicated prioritization process, with the intelligence product the coverage produced. But that was when the US government relied on constellations made up of a few boutique satellites, rather than the so-called proliferated constellations available today — arguably deflating demand for NGA’s selective tasking and presenting new, dispersed opportunities.

“Satellite tasking has traditionally been contentious due to high demand and low capacity. But recent changes to space-based intelligence architectures have increased the number of satellites and better leveraged commercial remote sensing capabilities — increasing overall capacity,” explained Steven Jordan Tomaszewski, senior director of National Security Space at the Aerospace Industries Association and who has an intelligence background.

“This means that the organizations that determine how to task satellite assets can now meet more requests, and this in turn means more warfighters, especially lower-echelon forces, can receive relevant space-based information to inform their operations,” Tomaszewski said.

Kari Bingen, a former Pentagon intelligence leader who is now head of the Center for Strategic and International Security’s Aerospace Security Project, said that given the opportunities provided by the changed technological landscape, the old way of doing business also must change.

“Current models worked well when government users were competing for support from a limited number of exquisite satellite systems. But when those satellites start to number in the dozens, hundreds, or more, across government, commercial, and international providers, we need different models for tasking and direct delivery of data to users in the field, ones that leverage advances in automation, machine learning, and cloud infrastructure,” she said.

“Getting access to satellite data should be as easy as hailing a car via Uber,” she said — a far cry from the current setup, where any request needs to be routed through NGA.

The NRO-Space Force GMTI effort thus is a first opportunity to create a new tasking model for US government owned and operated ISR satellites. At the heart of the emerging concept of operations being crafted by the Space Force and NRO, according to a handful of government and industry sources, would be the capability to directly downlink tracking data and targeting coordinates from GMTI satellites to Space Force-managed ground stations and military platforms such as fighter jets via Space Force-owned downlinks and communications networks.

In response to a query from Breaking Defense, an NRO spokesperson explained that the agency has been “working with our DoD partners on the transition from air- to space-based moving target indication.” The volume of collection and delivery timelines expected with MTI is not new to the NRO.

“The NRO has clear responsibilities for the MTI mission. We are developing and acquiring the space and ground systems, integrating MTI into the broader ISR enterprise, and we are responsible for operating and sustaining space and ground systems. Operation and sustainment involves satellite command and control, anomaly response, and status reporting to the community (including USSF),” the spokesperson added.

In late February, Air Force space acquisition guru Frank Calvelli said in no uncertain terms that to meet the rapid pace of the future battlefield, space-based tactical ISR assets must be enabled with “same control, same classification and same direct downlinks that tactical airborne ISR systems have today.” And he called for policy changes to do that.

The issue is speed of getting intel to users, according to Space Force and other military officials.

“I think what is really driving a lot of the need is the pacing challenge that we have, [and the] need to be able to get data to shooters in a rapid timeline,” one Space Force official said.

“Speed is everything,” echoed one industry official with previous Pentagon experience.

NGA Cut Out of GMTI?

This new paradigm, however, would leave NGA out in the cold, which has prompted agency pushback, according to numerous sources.

Currently, NGA is the agency in charge of ISR satellite tasking, stemming from Title 50 as well as DoD Directive 5015.60 of July 29, 2009 [PDF]. That makes it the agency in charge of tasking geospatial information from all sources, including NRO and other US spy satellites, as well as determining which users are in the front of the line to get the information gathered.

If direct downlinks are established from the GMTI satellites through Space Force data links to Space Force command and control systems, US military command HQs and shooter platforms such as bomber aircraft, then combatant commanders would be enabled to control tasking directly. That would leave the NGA tasking system as an unnecessary, and possibly counterproductive for military decision-making, middle step.

In response to questions from Breaking Defense, NGA Director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth defended his agency and unsurprisingly argued that the status quo is the best way forward.

“NGA has set the community standards for MTI for over two decades — assuring integrity in this operational capability for the combatant commands. NGA will continue to advocate for a unified GEOINT enterprise with a collective focus on providing the best integrated picture of the battlefield at speed and with precision,” he said in a written statement. “Our deep expertise and unparalleled efficiencies should be present in a whole-of-community approach. It is the only way to ensure success.”

The dispute has roped in officials at OMB and the White House, according to a handful of government and industry sources. But for the moment, officials in the decision-making food chain do not seem eager for a major process overhaul.

A key foundation for any change, the White House official said, is a better understanding of what gaps exist in combatant commander’s ISR needs both for planning and actual combat operations, including, as Breaking Defense previously reported, where commercial imagery and analysis can help.

In addition, the official said, even if a direct-tasking model were to be determined as necessary, care would have to be taken to set up the process to ensure that intelligence being gathered for commanders also would flow back into the rest of the government user community for ISR — who range from POTUS to the CIA director to State Department officials in far-flung embassies.

“If you look at the overall TCPED [tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination] architecture … any model that we go to in the future has to be complimentary,” the official said. “If you were to have a service that did the tactical direct-to-the-shooter tasking and pulling that data down through a direct downlink, you have to think about what are all the capabilities needed for an integrated space architecture? … [We] still need that information back into the library of data that has been collected. So, you have to build an architecture that looks at this holistically.

“Everybody needs that data, maybe just on different timelines,” the official stressed.

The White House official explained that what should be undertaken are pilot efforts that can provide actual information on how a direct-to-shooter tasking system could work for everyone’s benefit.

That may quietly be happening already. On March 13 the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) awarded commercial remote sensing satellite firm BlackSky a contract worth $24 million to “to develop and demonstrate moving target engagement services.” The company will use its artificial intelligence-driven “tasking and analytics platform” to explore how automation can speed satellite tasking, intelligence collection from various sensors, tipping and cueing of other sensors and/or shooters, direct downlink of data and moving target engagement.

It is to be expected in the meantime that “there would be a little bit of tension between the services and the system and apparatus on the national side that was built for a different era,” the source added. “I also think that the discussion is healthy, to have these conversations back and forth.”