The DCI Small Satellite Review Panel concluded in June 1996 that: "...now is an appropriate time to make a qualitative change in the systems architecture of the nation's reconnaissance assets... We see the opportunity to move towards an operational capability for the country, at least for imagery systems, that consists of an array of smaller, cheaper spacecraft in larger numbers which is at least as useful as those currently planned and to transport them to space with substantially smaller and less costly launch vehicles.
The DISCOVERER II program was based on Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) work on a new lightweight satellite called STARLITE. The STARLITE concept was advanced in early 1997 following the completion of a DARPA-sponsored study. This study reported the feasibility of developing, deploying and operating a constellation of relatively inexpensive radar satellites designed to affordably provide near-continuous, day/night, all-weather, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging support to the warfighter that could be directly tasked by the warfighter and directly downlinked to theater for processing and exploitation.
Shortly thereafter, the concept was modified to incorporate a low cost approach to space-based High Range Resolution Ground Moving Target Indication (HRR-GMTI) collection as well as SAR imaging capabilities in response to Air Force interest in complementing the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV), U-2 and Joint Surveillance Targeting Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battlefield HRR-GMTI surveillance with near-continuous, deep-look HRR-GMTI coverage from space.
Starlite had the potential to demonstrate several important attributes. Precision weapons require precision sensors to support their potential leverage. The availability of nearly continuous, precise and rapidly reported target information would provide for a major advance in military operations and support the US objectives of information and battlefield dominance.
By exploiting emerging technologies and the industrial process in place or being created, DARPA believes it can design and demonstrate system capabilities to provide nearly continuous access at an affordable cost. DARPA believed that by using direct downlink access to combat units without security classification constraints, a potential revolution in capability can be achieved. The unclassified, operational attributes of a systems such as Starlite would be a useful vehicle for engaging Allies in cooperating in satellite reconnaissance. Depending upon one's view of this prospect, it could provide both resource and political leverage for the United States.
At the time STARLITE was proposed, the NRO was in the midst of defining its Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) intended to serve as the basis for acquiring the next generation of imaging satellite systems. An initial challenge was the perception within NRO that the program was redundant with the Future Imagery Architecture. In the Spring of 1997 Starlite was shelved while the USAF and NRO work out the redundancy issues.
The Department of Defense, the Directors of DARPA and the NRO asked the Defense Science Board (DSB) to establish a Task Force on Satellite Reconnaissance (the so-called "Hermann Panel") to review the operational, technical, industrial and financial aspects of both the STARLITE and FIA initiatives. In January 1998, the DSB Task Force on Satellite Reconnaissance issued its report. The Task Force recommended that a modified STARLITE program be initiated, as a "Military Space Radar Surveillance Program," in an effort to achieve broad-area, all-weather, near-continuous radar access that could be integrated with military operations.
The report from the DSB task force on Satellite Reconnaissance played an important role in the development in February 1998 of a consensus approach whereby a joint program office would be established for a program to be co-sponsored by the Air Force, NRO, and DARPA. In April 1998 the program was renamed Discoverer II.
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