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  • Writer's pictureBTI Technology & Intelligence

The Armed Forces, the Intelligence Community and ISR satellites

(Translated and adapted from an article published on the Breaking Defense website, available at

"The Army needs information when and where they want it".

Rob Zitz, former US Army Intelligence officer.

The US Army is negotiating with the US Intelligence Community and the newly created Space Force, operational control of any future Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites built by the Army and hosted in the Department of Defense (DoD), in the Intelligence Community (IC) itself, and/ or commercial satellites.

For decades, a small committee has made decisions about where US spy satellites should be launched, and who has priority access to their data flows. Today, this committee is led by the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which sets the operational requirements for the National Recognition Office (NRO) to comply with when building spy satellites, as well as for any commercial ISR satellite data contracted by the NRO. The NGA, in effect, can also determine who has priority for the data flow from these satellites.

The US Army does not want to take full command of NRO-operated images or signal intelligence satellites. Nor does it want (at least for now) to build its own ISR satellite constellation. However, it is important that non-Army ISR satellites, which may be built in the future, are available when needed.

One of the US Army's ultimate goals is to ensure "dedicated" access to space-based intelligence, and the surveillance and reconnaissance data needed for its operations in all fields. The Army wants a “cooperative relationship” in which ISR constellations of small satellites are managed daily and launched by traditional miliary space operators.

This includes the NRO and the Space Development Agency (SDA), which is working on a constellation of small satellites for communications and another for tracking missiles. The SDA, for its part, is expected to soon be under the command of the Space Force, as part of a reorganization of the Space Systems and Missile Center, into a new Space Systems Command.

On the other hand, it is important for the Army to participate in the process of establishing how data is distributed and to be able to execute these capabilities deliberately, rather than in an “ad hoc manner”, or on a priority list made by someone outside the Army . The basic requirement is dedicated capacity, whenever necessary.

Art of the CARPONIS Satellite (Source: Coordination Committee for the Implementation of Space Systems - CCISE)

In Brazil, the Border Monitoring System (SISFRON) implemented by the Army, does not yet have a Geointelligence structure, nor does it access images from any type of ISR satellites, even commercial ones. It is about time (and there is still time) for those responsible for this program to insert this capacity in the next phases of SISFRON implementation, not limited to images obtained by drones or by cameras installed on fixed antennas at the land borders.

This, combined with a robust system of management and distribution of images to analysts located in the Geointeligence Sections of Military Area Commands, with the possibility of automated detection of difference in standards, based on machine learning, will allow the Army to respond to the demands of the society in our border strip, providing accurate and reliable support to the operations of the Federal Police, the Federal Highway Police and the Public Security Secretariats of the states involved, allowing an effective fight against the actions of drug trafficking in Brazilian territory.

Our country is not yet in a position to plan a spy satellite, such as the USA. However, the Strategic Space Systems Program (PESE) devised by the Air Force and now under the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, brings a proposal for satellite constellations that meet the Intelligence needs of the Armed Forces, allowing the National Research Institute (INPE) continue to work with scientific research and environmental monitoring.

Unfortunately, our Defense Industrial Base lacks the technology to develop and build high-capacity ISR satellites. The short-term solution - then - is to buy satellites, as China did in the 1980s so that, through technology transfer and reverse engineering, we can develop native technology in a few decades. Today, China, in addition to having launched hundreds of satellites into space, is already building its own space station and has been working on its project to send astronauts to the Moon...

The Brazilian Army has the same need as the US Army to have "dedicated" access to space-based intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance data. Despite the fact that Brazil does not have government agencies dedicated to space, such as the SDA, the NRO, and the NGA (not to mention the Space Force), our Ministry of Defense and our Intelligence Community could well contribute to the definition of related aspects to ISR satellites. And, certainly, this would be beneficial, both for the protection of our nearly 17,000 km of borders, and for the protection of our Blue Amazon, by the Brazilian Navy.

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