If SpaceX’s Secret Constellation Is What We Think It Is, It’s Game Changing (Updated)

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is reportedly acquiring a constellation of hundreds of intelligence-gathering satellites from SpaceX, with a specific focus on tracking targets down below in support of ground operations. Though details about this project are still very limited, there are clear parallels to what the U.S. Space Force has previously said about a highly classified space-based radar surveillance program, which it first publicly disclosed around the same time SpaceX is said to have gotten its NRO contract. If this program is the one we think it is, it could bring about a revolution in both tactical and strategic space-based sensing.

Starshield, SpaceX’s government-sales-focused business unit, has been working on the new low Earth orbit (LEO) spy satellites under a $1.8 billion contract it received in 2021 from NRO, according to a report from Reuters this past weekend, citing five anonymous sources familiar with the deal. The Wall Street Journal had previously published a story about the existence of the contract in February, but did not name NRO as being involved or provide specific details about the deal’s scope of work.

A rendering of a notional satellite from SpaceX’s Starshield website. SpaceX

At the time of writing, neither SpaceX nor its CEO Elon Musk appear to have directly responded to the Reuters article or otherwise commented on the details therein. NRO, a U.S. military organization that serves as America’s main remote sensing intelligence arm, and is so secret that its existence was not publicly acknowledged until 1992, declined to comment on the specifics of any deal with SpaceX, according to Reuters.

“We’ve changed our procurement methods to take advantage of LEO technologies,” Troy Meink, NRO’s principal deputy director, said in a speech at the Satellite 2024 conference on Monday, according to SpaceNews. “Our main priority is to meet the requirements with minimum risk.

When the new constellation, or at least an initial segment thereof, might begin collecting intelligence operationally, if it hasn’t already, isn’t clear. SpaceX has been launching relevant prototype satellites since 2020, before its formal contract with NRO, and “a U.S. government database of objects in orbit shows several SpaceX missions having deployed satellites that neither the company nor the government have ever acknowledged,” per Reuters.

As for why SpaceX is the one to deliver this constellation to the Pentagon, it pioneered the capability and is really the only experienced contractor in this area at this time, although that will change in the years to come.

The Starshield business unit was only publicly unveiled in 2022 and its first confirmed contract, for space-based communications services, came from the U.S. Space Force the following year. The U.S. Army has also publicly evaluated communications capabilities provided by Starshield. The U.S. military has also tested SpaceX’s commercial Starlink space-based communications service on multiple past occasions.

In the context of the Reuters report about its work for the NRO, SpaceX’s Starshield website does currently list “Earth Observation” as one of its three main focus areas. The other two are “Communications” and “Hosted Payloads.”

“Starlink already offers unparalleled end-to-end user data encryption. Starshield uses additional high-assurance cryptographic capability to host classified payloads and process data securely, meeting the most demanding government requirements,” according to the Starshield site. “Starlink’s inter-satellite laser communications terminal, which is the only communications laser operating at scale in orbit today, can be integrated onto partner satellites to enable incorporation into the Starshield network.”

Laser-based communications systems are capable of sending large amounts of information quickly and are also highly secure and resistant to electronic warfare jamming, as you can read more about here.

The video below from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) offers a good overview of the benefits of laser-based communications systems.

Details about the specific capabilities of the satellites NRO is reportedly acquiring from SpaceX are scant. Reuters reported that they can “track targets on the ground and share that data with U.S. intelligence and military officials” and will be “bearing Earth-imaging capabilities that can operate as a swarm.”

There is no indication one way or another from Reuters‘ story what kind of ‘imagery’ the satellites are designed to capture. This, in turn, raises questions about whether the kind of intelligence product being described here is really part of a broader space-based ground surveillance capability. Also, traditional electro-optical and infrared imagery taken from low Earth orbit isn’t widely used for real-time tracking targets on the ground, at least on a large scale.

In May 2021, now-retired Gen. Jay Raymond, then head of Space Force, disclosed that his service was “building GMTI [Ground Moving Target Indicator] from space” and was “actively working to be able to provide that capability” as part of a classified program. Space Force subsequently told Breaking Defense that the development of this particular space-based GMTI capability could be traced back to a 2018 project within the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO).

GMTI refers to a mode found on certain radars, which allows them to discriminate between moving targets on the ground and static ones, and can track these moving targets’ activity over time. GMTI as we know it today came in part out of the Pentagon’s multi-faceted Pave Mover initiative of the latter Cold War period. Radar with GMTI can usually also provide synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery, which is the ability to capture highly detailed image-like ground maps, even through cloud cover, smoke, and dust, and at night.

GMTI tracks overlaid on a SAR image. (Public Domain)

GMTI capability has improved remarkably over the years and the hardware associated with it has become far more compact, especially with the introduction of active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and improved processing power. Combining GMTI and SAR can provide far greater context data being collected. These capabilities have become so sensitive that the combination of these modes can even provide automated identification and classification of what targets GMTI is picking up.

A SAR image of C-130s on a ramp.

Since 2021, the Department of the Air Force, which also includes the Space Force, has presented space-based GMTI capability as a key element of what will replace the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battlefield surveillance and management aircraft. The E-8 was the primary result of the Pave Mover program. At the time, USAF officials would not say if that space-based capability actually exists or when it could exist if it didn’t at the time. The Air Force expects to retire the last E-8C in the next year or so.

While some of the capability lost by the E-8’s retirement will go to distributed airborne platforms, including those that can penetrate into contested airspace, a large part of it will go into space. So the timing for a maturing GMTI constellation makes sense as the E-8C is pulled from service. Just how successful the space-based GMTI program is could also impact advanced airborne GMTI/SAR surveillance programs in the future.

An E-8C JSTARS aircraft. USAF

The NRO has historically focused more on strategic-level intelligence, rather than supporting tactical operations where space-based GMTI would be particularly relevant. NRO and Space Force have also been working for years now to nail down exactly where their respective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) responsibilities lie. Cooperation between the two on acquiring and fielding this capability would not be surprising. It is also very possible, if not plausible that the constellation NRO is acquiring from SpaceX will have sensor suites capable of performing multiple kinds of ISR tasks.

“I can’t give you details about what’s in the pass-through, but let me put it this way, we’re working very closely with the Intelligence Community, particularly with NRO,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said at a roundtable, which The War Zone and other outlets attended earlier in March, ahead of the rollout of the service’s 2025 Fiscal Year budget request last week. “There are dual-use capabilities that can be fielded in space that are valuable both for intelligence and military applications. And that’s why I’m saying that some of the things that are in the pass-through are beneficial to the Space Force.”

The “pass-through” referred to here is a part of the Air Force’s annual budget that goes straight to other agencies, typically for classified programs, which are also often not publicly acknowledged. NRO has a very close relationship with the Air Force in this regard historically given its own inability for decades to operate publicly.

A briefing slide breaking down the Department of the Air Force’s 2024 and 2025 Fiscal Year budget requests. Note the tens of billions of dollars in “Non-Blue” pass-through funding that is not actually for the Air Force. USAF

One major way a large network of GMTI and SAR capable satellites could be a huge help in the strategic sense is for continuously tracking the locations of ground-mobile ballistic missile launchers that remain in wide use amongst America’s primary adversaries, Russia and China. Providing persistent tracking of these assets, as well as other strategic movements, is something of a holy grail of strategic surveillance that the Pentagon has been lusting over for decades. With a large constellation, a certain amount of on-orbit resources can be allocated to this mission while other battlefield tracking and tactical intelligence products are produced.

Regardless of the exact capabilities of the satellites that SpaceX is reportedly building for NRO, when they might be operational, and whether this is tied to the Space Force’s GMTI plans, the benefits of a constellation concept are clear. Historically, some of the biggest limitations of spy satellites have been their inability to be everywhere they need to at once and the relatively slow speed at which they can be retasked. The movements of traditional spy satellites are also predictable and countries with the means to monitor them can closely tailor their activities according to when such an asset is overhead.

In turn, low Earth orbit spy satellites have limitations on the kinds of intelligence they can gather and in what contexts. It can be difficult to use them to support very time-sensitive operations or to provide a more on-demand source of additional information for forces right at the tactical edge of the battlespace. As noted, Reuters‘ report says that supporting tactical ground operations is a major driving force behind NRO’s acquisition of the new distributed constellation from SpaceX.

In contrast, a larger, distributed constellation would have the ability to monitor huge swathes of the Earth simultaneously, and depending on the size of the constellation, at least far more persistently to seamlessly. This could make it difficult, if not impossible, for an opponent to hide activities of interest. A very low revisit rate, or even eliminating revisit rate altogether, could even open up the possibility of continuous ‘streaming’ coverage of a location from low Earth orbit. This would also be essential for persistent GMTI coverage that tracks ground movements in real time that will actually be high enough in fidelity to guide weapons onto those tracks. It’s possible that aerial tracking could also be a function, as well, even to a more limited agree. The E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) will also be replaced at least partially by space-based capabilities, along with the E-7 Wedgetail.

There is also a fair chance that this is another type of system, perhaps to execute broad area optical/infrared imaging with some exotic capabilities to provide tracking. We just don’t know.

Regardless, yes, we are talking about the possibility of panoptic or near panoptic targeting and surveillance from space.

Greater collaborative capabilities, especially ones enabled by the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, could help to find targets of interest and anomalies far faster than ever before. This could also open a door to more autonomous collection, tasking/retasking, and other capabilities, as well. Areas of interest that need seamless coverage could have extra satellites retasked to the necessary orbit in order to do so automatically, without the need for human deconfliction and even direct operator direction.

In terms of data collection, machine learning and AI will just be as key for helping to parse through the massive volumes of data that a large distributed constellation will be able to collect. Capabilities like this have already been demonstrated and the U.S. military is actively investing in their continued development.


“Proliferation and diversification of our architecture will provide increased coverage, greater capacity and resilience, and more timely delivery of data,” NRO Deputy Director, Space Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Povak, said, speaking generally, last year according to SpaceNews.

A constellation with hundreds of satellites would also be far more resilient to hostile attacks, which is becoming an absolutely critical feature. U.S. adversaries and potential adversaries, especially China and Russia, have fielded various anti-satellite systems and continued to develop more advanced capabilities in this regard.

The U.S. military is already publicly working on other distributed constellations, which it sees as critical for supporting various mission sets, such as early warning against ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons, and ensuring access to them in the event of a future attack. American authorities have also been looking to expand cooperation with commercial space companies, including when it comes to sourcing satellite imagery, to help provide additional resilience. However, having an intelligence constellation fully under U.S. government control would eliminate any potential threats to access due to issues with any particular private contractor. SpaceX and CEO Musk have faced criticism over how use of Starlink has and hasn’t been allowed in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. Having a proprietary constellation takes this variable out of the equation.

At the same time, this public focus on distributed constellations looks to be prompting competitors to explore new and controversial anti-satellite countermeasures. Earlier this year, it emerged that the U.S. government had intelligence that Russia has been exploring a space-based anti-satellite system that would use nuclear weapons to disable or destroy large numbers of satellites at once. You can read more about what is known about this Russian development here.


There have previously been indications the Chinese armed forces have also been looking at the use of nuclear weapons as a means of attacking large constellations. Chinese researchers tied to the People’s Liberation Army have also reportedly expressed concerns about the potential threats posed by SpaceX’s existing Starlink constellation based on observations from the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“I would say today our constellations are optimized for a benign environment. And as we see these threats now growing, we have to now protect and defend those constellations until we develop the next generation of resilient constellations,” U.S. Space Force Gen. Stephen Whiting told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing in February. “That work is ongoing to deploy those next generation[s] of resilient capabilities.”

“What’s most concerning is the way China has clinically studied us and our dependency on space, and figured out exactly what they think our architecture looks like and now is rapidly building systems to hold that architecture at risk,” Whiting added.

China, in particular, is also surging ahead in expanding its own space-based intelligence-gathering capabilities, as you can learn more about here.

Reuters reported today that Chinese state media and social media accounts linked to the People’s Liberation Army have been especially vocal in decrying the news about SpaceX’s reported contract with NRO.

Altogether, questions still clearly remain about the scale, scope, and progress of SpaceX’s reported work on a new massive spy satellite constellation for NRO, including its relationship to efforts to field a space-based GMTI capability. At the same time, a distributed space-based intelligence capability like this not only makes sense, but would have truly game-changing impacts and is becoming increasingly essential in the face of growing threats.

Update 3/21/2024:

NRO has now publicly confirmed that it is actively working together with the U.S. Space Force on space-based GMTI capabilities and that prototype satellites have already been launched.

“The prototypes went up there. They were delivered in about 36 months from concept to launch, have operated fine, and we have exercised with Space Force and the other services, to prove their capability and that we’re able to move on to production,” NRO’s Director Christopher Scolese said yesterday while speaking at the National Security Innovation Base Summit, according to Defense One.

Scolese does not appear to have explicitly drawn any direct connection between this work and the reported 2021 SpaceX contract, but the three-year timeline he described is certainly in alignment.

Defense One also highlighted information from the Department of the Air Force’s 2025 Fiscal Year budget proposal that further speaks to past and current NRO/Space Force cooperation on GMTI capabilities in space. Budget documents say that the “Moving Target Indicator project,” as well as an “Auxiliary Payloads” one, will both “leverage [the] relationship with NRO” relating to work “to develop and field [a] GMTI system.”

Contact the author: joe@twz.com, tyler@twz.com