Collaboration by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Department of the Air Force on a Space-Based Radar study continues to fulfill one of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s operational imperatives for the provision of ground-moving target indication (GMTI) at scale, NRO Director Chris Scolese said on Aug. 4.

“There’s a study that’s going on that we’re doing jointly that’s going to inform how we move forward on that,” Scolese told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Schriever Spacepower Forum. “That [study] is not yet completed, but it’s going well.”

This year, the Department of the Air Force is to complete a force design for future GMTI using a possible mix of space and air assets in advance of the fiscal 2024 budget submission (Defense Daily, March 30).

In general, Scolese said that NRO plans to take advantage of commercial radar services, where possible. In January, the NRO announced the award of five commercial radar contracts to Airbus, U.S.; Capella Space; ICEYE, U.S.; PredaSAR; and Umbra Lab.

“Certainly, space-based radar is critical for anything that we do,” Scolese said on Aug. 4. “The earth gets cloudy at times, and radar certainly gives us an advantage there. Clearly, radar is absolutely critical to any ISR activity that one would do or wanted to understand what’s going on on the ground. Commercial plays a role in that. National systems play a role in that, and we’re evaluating all of them to inform our decisions as we go forward on moving target indication or any other activity that would involve our understanding of what’s happening on the surface of the earth.”

The Department of the Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget indicates that the department plans to retire its 12 remaining Northrop Grumman [NOC] E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) GMTI planes–eight in fiscal 2023 and four in fiscal 2024–and to use other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to fill in for the loss of Joint STARS. The Air Force has said that Joint STARS is too costly to continue to operate, and the NRO and the Air Force have said that space-based GMTI will prove valuable in ground detection and monitoring over countries with advanced means to deny the flight of U.S. ISR aircraft.

The NRO is “launching more capable systems, employing different phenemonologies to thwart denial–either by camouflage or other means,” Scolese said on Aug. 4.

Dynamic GMTI radars, as on Joint STARS, allow periodic updates and precise tracking of moving ground targets via the Doppler returns of such targets.

The Air Force has said that it continues “to operate multiple ISR platforms with GMTI capability and plan to do so across the duration of the coverage reduction caused by JSTARS retirement.”

Other Air Force aircraft besides Joint STARS with GMTI include the U-2 with the Raytheon Technologies [RTX] ASARS-2 radars, the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Block 40 Global Hawk with the Raytheon AN/ZPY-2 radar, and the RQ-170 Sentinel by Lockheed Martin [LMT]. The Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)–the Department of the Air Force initiative under Pentagon Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2)–is to aid the integration of such sensor information for targeting.

In addition to Air Force GMTI, other services have some GMTI. For example, the U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton aircraft by Northrop Grumman has GMTI, while the U.S. Army De Havilland Canada (DHC) Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft have GMTI. In addition, Leidos [LDOS] has been working with the Army on possible GMTI on a modified Bombardier 650 business jet that Leidos owns. While the 1948 Key West Agreement and its modifications carving out service mission areas appear to prohibit Army aerial reconnaissance jets, the stipulations may contain a loophole for contractor-owned test assets.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond disclosed the Space Force and NRO’s space-based GMTI radar effort in May last year (Defense Daily, May 12, 2021).