Pentagon Satellites to Persistently Stare at Targets in 10 Years

Over the next decade, the Pentagon plans to launch satellites that offer a revolutionary leap in surveillance technology by persistently staring at targets from space for long periods of time, an official said.

Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers gave the estimate at a defense conference this week in Washington, D.C.

The Defense Department is at a “pivotal moment for intelligence” due to the rapid technological and geopolitical change underway throughout the world, he said. Adapting to the environment requires both short- and long-term investments, he said.

“In each of these areas, we’re trying to make some fundamental leaps,” Vickers said. “So, for example, in the global coverage area, for the first time, we’re trying to create really persistent surveillance from space, rather than having episodic surveillance, actually be able to stare at areas for real long periods of time and improve the resiliency and the integration of our architecture.

“Those will be really, really big things when they’re realized,” he added. “It will be a leap in overhead reconnaissance commensurate to anything we’ve done in the last 50 years or so, but they’ll take a decade-plus to realize.”

Vickers didn’t specify any programs.

The Air Force’s current Space Base Infrared System, known as SBIRS, and legacy Defense Support Program, or DSP, satellites support the Overhead Persistent Infrared Technology mission in such areas as missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness, according to a Government Accountability Office report from January.

The service’s Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, demonstration sensor employed a wide field-of-view staring technology — which provided insight into the applicability for the mission area, the document states.

During the past decade of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon was forced to turn to the private sector and rent bandwidth on commercial satellites because its own networks couldn’t meet the constant demand from commanders for video and other data captured by drones flying over the battlefield.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • ECF

    Strategic staring contest! We have a staring gap. We will NEVER BLINK!!!

  • Caracoid

    What’s the difference between this and the geosynchronous satellites we have now?

    • rtsy

      Sounds like the amount of eyes they can have on a given area at any time. One geosynchronous sat can look at half the globe, but only zoom in to one point at a time. They want the ability to stare into everyone’s backyard simultaneously.

    • A. Physicist

      Distance: geostationary orbits are about 35,786 km out, and it makes sense to have imaging done from much closer. A common choice is sun-synchronous, which is closer to 400 km from the surface. Geostationary orbits make more sense for situations where resolution is less important.

      • Liv

        I think it’s more reliant on the aperture. Take the astronomy telescopes, the larger the mirror, the more resolution you get.

  • Max

    Right on target. Staring and maybe next time Laser down on the enemies

  • PolicyWonk

    It wouldn’t be even slightly surprising, given how efficient cameras are now (and how small, and the ever-increasing resolution), if a single satellite was now carrying a whole passel o’ cameras, to persistently watch a whole lot of things - while reserving others to zoom in on areas of interest, etc.

    • blight_weroasdfl

      That’s an interesting point. We assume that spy sats are Hubble-pointed-at-Earth with a massive lens. To some degree that is still true; but there is an opportunity for a giant surveillance globe with multiple eyes, like the compound lens of an insect to stare at multiple targets at the face visible to the satellite. Optical distortion will make anything too far off-normal look distorted, but being able to park a satellite over North Korea and surveil multiple sites, then use that information to decide where the drones should go would be pretty helpful.

      • deusvolt

        because North Korea is such a threat to the world ….

  • oblatt22

    Opponents like the Taliban or ISIS don’t need this technology they just ask the locals whats going on - and get far superior intelligence.

    When you troops arnt smart enough or cant be bothered to even learn the local language you will always have second rate intelligence.

    • Liv

      I don’t think the Taliban or ISIS are in the strategic countries this would be meant for…

    • Brian B. Mulholland

      Humanity has hundreds and perhaps thousands of languages and dialects. In Afghanistan you might meet speakers of Dari, or Pashto, probably emigres from other parts of the Arab or Iranian world. Korengali, as in the Korengal valley, is apparently much different from what’s spoken elsewhere. The idea that we should be able to teach large numbers of troops to speak a native language within the time permitted by war is unrealistic. A machine translation system via IPad (someday an I-helmet?) might happen.

  • orly?

    Wow, such limited imagination here…

    To some degree, this is potentially groundbreaking for documentation/warfare.

  • rat

    How will this help against china? Russia?

    • tudor

      It probably wont. In a conflict vs China/Russia the 1st ones to fall will be the satellites since both countries, and also probably the USA, are developing anti satellite missiles or they will attempt to bring them down through cybernetic attacks.
      Imo, this is more about eliminating those so called blind zones, where limitation where Special Forces have an open window to operate with satellite support for a specific time gap.

      • josh.p

        We ( u.s ) already have asat missiles. Last i check was some yrs back , the navy shot down a old satellite that was broken. I think it was in 2009 or 2010.

      • Brian B. Mulholland

        Normally it takes multiple orbits to properly position a satellite for surveillance. This opens an interesting possibility - a Gorgon-staring satellite that could provide at least some measure of scrutiny even in those first few orbits when it’s not exactly placed where you want it.

        And I wouldn’t assume that any conflict with Russia would immediately cost us all our satellites. Hypothetically: if Russia does not admit that there are Russian units inside Ukraine, need we admit that we are providing satellite reconnaissance to Ukrainian forces?

  • Franklin

    The birth of the AI battlestars begin. There is tech today to make them invisible besides stealth. Elon Musk says “AI is like summoning a demon”

    One article says DARPA has a “new autonomous quadcopter powered by a brain-like neuromorphic chip”. I wonder how it compares to the HAL 9000? Or should I say Skynet?

    If they can mine asteroids then maybe we can program them to reproduce using organic directives for sexuality between different build sets. Can you imagine PlayBot or prostibot for resources?

  • Vitsing

    It does not take a Rocket Scientist to believe that the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane has played a vital role, in operational concepts and basic technology research, in persistently staring at targets from space for long periods of time.

  • Nol Perreira

    Just in case you are interested in how these satellites will persistantly stare, I can give you one possible solution: Suppose you could build10,000 100Kg satellites or perhaps 20,000 50 Kg satellites at about 300 nautical miles altitude in randomly distributed orbits. Let each mini satellite be equiped with some medium resolution optics and other antennae and the ability to network with other satellites within 1oo miles. In effect we would have an internet in space. Perhaps a few will be equipped with additional processing power. The terabytes/sec of data would be collected by a NSA center - perhaps in Utah, and processed. Multiple optical data from perhaps a dozen satellites would provide a synthetic optical equivalent of much larger lenses than the physical ones on each satelite. That would provide the managing agency with the ability to create high resolution images of areas of interest. This would be essentially the reverse process by which an electronically scanned radar develops an image. These satellites would each have relatively limited lifetimes, however solar-powered ion drives on each unit would extend the life of each unit..

    • dratomic

      Cool Idea! Gets the Very Large Array for visual. But use the current 20000 lbs launch capacity to launch a carrier for these(50-100) mini sats so that new sats can be placed or replaced as needed with in one orbit. Wait what about the payload bay on the X37?