NewSpace: The Next Frontier for ISR
by John Beckner
John Beckner, the founder and owner of Horizon Technologies, a UK start-up which within five years has become a world leader in airborne SIGINT and ISR, here considers the role of future developments for global transparency.
On the Libyan coastline in the dark of night, a bedraggled group of African refugees file down a rocky pathway to the water’s edge. They look with trepidation at their flimsy craft bobbing a few metres offshore. The smugglers who organise these voyages hand the refugee “leader” (usually the one who can speak some English) a Thuraya sat-phone and tells him to call the pre-programmed number which is the Italian Coast Guard Alert Centre “as soon as they get out of sight of land.”
On a nightly basis, ISR aircraft on NATO or FRONTEX missions pick up these frantic, garbled calls to the Italian Coast Guard, and due to their SIGINT system, can pinpoint the location of the handset, and coordinate the nearest NATO naval unit to effect a rescue. Thousands of refugees are saved each month. However, for those unlucky enough to embark on their journey when there are no air assets in the area, they run a very high risk of drowning.
In the very near future, sensors on a constellation of CubeSats will allow FRONTEX/EMSA/NATO to have a 24/7 realtime picture of every ship in the Mediterranean due to its AIS and RF transmissions. Any sat-phone call at sea will be immediately correlated with known ship locations, and any uncorrelated phone call/handset locations will immediately trigger an alert. Starting in 2019, refugees in the Med will no longer have to “hope” a NATO aircraft is in the air that night watching over them; they will be protected by Lemur CubeSats. These were launched by Spire Global; the world’s leader in Earth Observation via CubeSat. Today, more than 50 of Spire’s Lemur CubeSats already provide AIS, micro weather, and ADS-B aircraft tracking data to governments around the world. By early 2019, the Lemurs will also have powerful ISR functionality: sat-phone geolocation, and ESM capabilities which will transform space-based AIS correlation.
The term NewSpace is defined as “an entrepreneurial movement and philosophy encompassing the globally emerging, private, commercial, spaceflight and satellite industry.” It is attracting billions of dollars in venture capital investment. Last year, private investors poured $3.9 billion into commercial space companies, a record amount. Experts note that venture capital is flowing into the sector and finding success: Over 120 firms made investments in NewSpace last year, topping a peak of 89 in 2016.
While many NewSpace applications are entirely commercial, there are some players like Spire who are dramatically changing the availability of “commercial” ISR data for governments. Since the “NewSpace world” and associated technologies are moving much faster than the traditional aerospace business cycle, companies like Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Leonardo, Boeing, and Raytheon are investing in NewSpace start-ups which have ISRrelated products and services, and thus potential value to the government/ intelligence customer community.
Under the moniker “Earth Observation”, these NewSpace companies plan to offer CubeSat services which have direct applications for the military ISR world, and these companies have ambitious goals in this market niche. Just as Google Earth suddenly made public a plethora of previously secret military facilities around the world, data from CubeSats will have a similar effect. Unlike the larger SIGINT/ELINT intelligence satellites operated by the world’s major powers (which are essentially obsolete from the moment they leave the factory), CubeSats “de-orbit” every two years, and are continually replaced with the latest technology. Small countries who can’t afford ISR aircraft, or even to lease them, will suddenly have access to a steady stream of ISR data. ISR Aircraft and UAVs won’t be replaced, but they can be cued, and their usage exponentially optimised.
No discussion of ISR and NewSpace would be complete without a refence to Planet. With their last launch of 88 CubeSats, the company now has 144 satellites orbiting the Earth. Planet previously said it would take 100 to 150 of them to be able to photograph the world’s entire surface each day, so it is now squarely within that target range. These satellites aren’t used to take up-close images, like of a license plate or a person’s face, but they can gather wider scale images, and pass over the same location at the same time each day; continually comparing the results. Customers, including governments who purchase this data from Planet, use artificial intelligence to find relationships with data relevant to their particular area of interest. Planet’s imagery acts as a “time machine” to go back and look for activity at a particular location at a particular point in time.
The Washington-based start-up Hawkeye360 has attracted major investment from VC funds to offer “a space-based civil global intelligence network that will use radio frequency (RF) technology to help monitor signals on land and sea and assist with emergencies”. Their “product” is essentially civil SIGINT collection. They have yet to launch their first group of three (for RF triangulation), somewhat larger, LEO satellites. However, their complex concept, despite its high cost, is garnering lots of interest from the US Government and others due to its clear ISR value.
Even the small Finnish start-up IceEye has attracted $19 million in VC funding with the laudable goal of using small Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to monitor the world’s ice mass. IceEye’s SAR imagery certainly has ISR radar imaging applications, and according to IceEye, the US DoD has already agreed to purchase their imaging data via their DIUx programme; and this is even before their first launch! In a similar vein, DARPA has realised that they can no longer rely on the big US primes to lead the way in technology, and must harness the fastgrowing technology of private industry. DARPA recently launched the Blackjack programme which asks for “innovative proposals for low cost, mass reproducible space payloads and satellite buses.”
Clearly, NewSpace will have a tremendous effect on the ISR world, and at a much faster rate than is generally appreciated. In the maritime arena, illegal fishing, transhipments, and smuggling will essentially be shut down once enough satellite/sensors are deployed. Any ship with its AIS turned off to avoid detection, will have to go completely “dark.” They won’t be able to navigate or communicate (in any manner); a very dangerous situation for any mariner, especially at night. The situation will be analogous to the early 1940s when German U-boats found it impossible to meet up with Uboat tankers since their communications betrayed them.
On land, the effects will be no different. Today’s overriding security concern involves the standoff between Europe/NATO and the Russian Army. For those countries who border Russia, realtime ISR data from space (RF emissions and communications) will be an invaluable commodity. Today, smaller countries simply don’t have the means of getting time-critical Electronic Order of Battle (EOB) data in their region. They are forced to depend on the US and other NATO assets like Rivet Joint, Air Seeker, AGS, etc. Soon, they will now be able to have their own unique ISR data stream, so they can make their own national security decisions based on real-time unfiltered intelligence data.
In conclusion, NewSpace is not just some commercial Venture Capital “flavour the month.” It has a major role to play in intelligence gathering, and ISR in particular. As with the first use of aerial balloon observations at the battle of Fleurus in 1794, NewSpace is transformational, and will provide countries with real-time intelligence information which is just one more step in making the world a more transparent place.