It's harvest season on Capitol Hill, and the search is on for ways to fund pet projects and the ongoing war in Iraq by stripping money from defense programs that have no powerful constituencies. Congressional harvest hands are not targeting today's crop of high-dollar programs, but going for the vital seed corn of tomorrow. One example is the joint-agency Space Radar program, an initiative to orbit a constellation of satellites carrying electronically steered, high-resolution, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems with moving target indication (MTI).
Eliminating Space Radar's relatively meager Fiscal 2008 funds proposed by the Bush administration would preclude the development and fielding of a dual-use intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability now considered critical to both the intelligence community and the nation's combat commanders. And the harvesters may be setting up the kill by first "taking it black," moving Space Radar into the shadowy, highly classified realm. There are myriad good reasons for developing high-tech systems in the black, but it's also easier to kill a program and raid its funding, when free of public scrutiny.
Putting a radar in orbit is hardly a new concept (AW&ST Apr. 16, p. 26). U.S. Lacrosse intel-radar platforms have been on duty since 1988, and Russia, Canada, Israel and other nations have operated imaging radarsats for years. But Space Radar will set new benchmarks for high resolution and its ability to detect small moving targets, day or night.
Space Radar proponents cite national security-related reasons for saving the program. But they--and Congress --may be overlooking an equally important stakeholder: the private sector.
Space Radar could be a world-altering orbital utility, a "disruptive technology" akin to the Global Positioning System. GPS now provides position and timing signals for everything from air navigation to banking and agriculture. Visionaries believe Space Radar will not only revolutionize the way military forces locate, track and target an enemy, but have as profound an impact on commerce and citizens' daily lives as GPS does. However, it might take innovative thinking today--blending government funds and private capital--to bring Space Radar to life tomorrow.
Nonmilitary uses of Space Radar vary from tracking ships for business and homeland security to all-weather, around-the-clock imaging for marketing. There are not-so-obvious potential uses, as well. Not too long ago, USAF Gen. (ret.) Richard B. Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hit it right when he said, "Today, people might say: 'Who would ever want to use a Space Radar?' I know people said that years ago about GPS. Who would ever use GPS for precision farming, for surveying [and] for timing signals in banking transactions? Space Radar probably will go the same way.
"So are there arrangements that could be set up early to get revenue streams from other users?" Myers asked rhetorically.
That's an intriguing idea. The Air Force has paid for building, launching and operating GPS, yet millions of people have benefited from its free signals. Assuming hundreds of unforeseen commercial uses for a future on-orbit Space Radar evolve, how should the constellation be funded?
As a new entity, Space Radar could be financed by a mix of government and private funds to underwrite the constellation's development and fielding. Intelligence and military users would be assured of timely national security-related data, and commercial partners would be free to sell "sanitized," archived radar information. Government and partner companies would share the proceeds. Over time, public and private investors would be repaid, then enjoy steady, long-term profits. Italy's Cosmo-SkyMed constellation of four dual-use SAR satellites--the first is set for launch next month--was conceived as a public-private partnership (AW&ST Jan. 1, p. 38).
Potential commercial applications for fused Space Radar data are difficult to foresee, but just the MTI feature, which highlights objects in motion, offers intriguing possibilities. Tracking the pattern of truck movements on secondary roads at night, or studying the congregation of taxis in a city could be of interest to data-buyers. The number of vehicles driving between Wal-Marts and certain housing subdivisions might interest corporate marketers?
In late June, how many fields in western Kansas are populated by combines cutting wheat and trucks hauling grain to elevators? Could such near-real-time information help commodity brokers estimate wheat-crop size?
Venture capitalists will have many such questions as they craft business models. Resolving them in concert with intelligence-military policy makers and Space Radar prime contractors today could avoid costly missteps. Just as commercial high-resolution imaging satellite companies did in the early 1990s, entrepreneurs and Pentagon chiefs can hammer out "rules of engagement" to ensure all parties are satisfied, before these next-generation radar satellites are launched.
Wartime budgets are having a tough enough time accommodating the costs of today's Space Radar studies, let alone those of future development and operation, so government leaders should welcome outside money. Similarly, venture capitalists and investors could help launch one of the biggest money-makers in space--if they have the courage to jump on board now. Let's hope there is enough vision, courage, cash, tenacity and patience to save Space Radar from the harvesters.
William B. Scott, coauthor of Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III, recently retired as Aviation Week & Space Technology's Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief. Linda H. Strine is the president and CEO of Infinite Links and former associate director for program affairs in the U.S. Transportation Dept.'s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.