U.S. officials have laid out an ambitious schedule for the first of the small satellites to go up late this year or early next year.
For years before North Korea fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, the Pentagon and intelligence experts had sounded a warning: The North was making faster progress than believed and spy-satellite coverage was so spotty that the United States might not see a missile being prepared for launch.
That triggered an urgent but quiet search for ways to improve the United States’ early-warning ability — and the capability to strike missiles while they are on the launchpad. The most intriguing solutions have come from Silicon Valley, in California, where the Obama administration began investing in tiny, inexpensive civilian satellites developed to count cars in Target parking lots and monitor the growth of crops.
Some in the Pentagon accustomed to relying on highly classified, multibillion-dollar satellites, which take years to develop, resisted the move. But as North Korea’s missile program progressed, U.S. officials laid out an ambitious schedule for the first of the small satellites to go up at the end of this year or the beginning of next.
Launched in clusters, some staying in orbit just a year or two, the satellites would provide the coverage necessary to execute a new military contingency plan, “Kill Chain.” It is the first step in a strategy to use satellite imagery to identify North Korean launch sites, nuclear facilities and manufacturing capability and destroy them pre-emptively if a conflict seems imminent.
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The best chance of countering a strike comes when missiles are on the ground, awaiting launch or shortly after their engines fire. Even a few extra minutes of warning might save the lives of tens of thousands of Americans — and millions of South Koreans and Japanese who already live within range of the North’s missiles.
“Kim Jong Un is racing — literally racing — to deploy a missile capability,” Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which coordinates satellite-based mapping for the government, said in days before North Korea’s latest launch. “His acceleration has caused us to accelerate.”
The timeline for getting the satellites in orbit, which defense officials have never discussed publicly, reflects the urgency of the problem. The missile launch Tuesday by North Korea was initiated from a new site, a mobile launcher at the Pang Hyon Aircraft Factory. Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the missile “is not one we have seen before” but noted that North Korea had increasingly conducted launches from new locales.
That mobility is the problem that the new satellites, with wide coverage using radar sensors that work at night and during storms, are designed to address. Less than one-third of North Korea is under spy-satellite coverage at a given moment.
Signs of launch
U.S. intelligence analysts detected indications of an impending launch in the days before the missile firing, according to a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Cmdr. William Marks. But even after the launch, the Pentagon misjudged what it was looking at. Minutes after its 37-minute flight ended, the U.S. Pacific Command described the missile as an intermediate-range model, often seen.
Hours later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a very different conclusion: that the North had tested its first ICBM, able to reach Alaska.
A week before, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Adm. James Syring, had warned Congress that such a moment was coming.
“It is incumbent upon us to assume that North Korea today can range the U.S. with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead,” he said in testimony. “I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat.”
The commercial-radar push is one of several new ways the administration is seeking to counter the North Korean threat. President Donald Trump inherited a secret effort to sabotage the North’s missile launches. But its success has been spotty at best, especially of late.
The new satellite initiative builds on technology created more for Wall Street than the Pentagon. From an office in an old Defense Department building within view of the Google campus in California, Raj Shah, director of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, is investing in companies that exploit tiny civilian radar satellites in hopes that the Pentagon can use them by the end of the year, or early in 2018.
“It’s a very challenging target,” said Shah, a former F-16 pilot in Iraq whose extensive experience in Silicon Valley appealed to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who set up the unit during Obama’s second term and recruited Shah.
“The key is using technologies that are already available and making the modifications we need for a specific military purpose,” Shah said.
His unit made an investment to jump-start the development efforts of Capella Space, a Silicon Valley startup named after a bright star. It plans to loft its first radar satellite late this year. The company says its radar fleet, if successfully deployed, will be able to monitor important targets hourly.
“The entire spacecraft is the size of a backpack,” said Payam Banazadeh, a founder of the company. Born in Iran, he learned satellite design at the University of Texas and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, specializing in miniaturization.
Once in orbit, the payload, he added, would unfurl its antenna and solar panels.
“Everything is getting smaller,” Banazadeh said of the craft’s parts. “Even the next version of the satellite is getting smaller.”
San Jose outpost
Seeing the early fruits of the Pentagon experiment, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is opening its doors to companies that can supply it with satellite radar data in addition to traditional images. Its outpost, set up this year, is in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley.
Federal officials rarely, if ever, acknowledge the poor reconnaissance coverage of the North from traditional military satellites. But William Perry, the former secretary of defense, recently said in Washington that if the North rolled out a missile to hit the United States or its allies, “there’s a good chance we’d never see it.”
In addition to Capella, companies rushing to make and exploit new generations of small radar satellites include Ursa Space Systems in Ithaca, New York; UrtheCast in Vancouver, B.C.; and Iceye in Espoo, Finland. Like many new companies seeking to make small satellites, most have strong ties to Silicon Valley.