MDA seeks to provide extensive support to U.S. intelligence and defense agencies

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas — MDA Corp.’s pending acquisition of DigitalGlobe will enhance the firm’s ability to offer U.S. defense and intelligence agencies not only imagery, but analysis and answers, said Rob Zitz, SSL Government Systems senior vice president and chief strategy officer.

Zitz, a 32-year veteran of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, joined SSL six weeks ago at the behest of Howard Lance, MDA chief executive and president, to ensure that “capabilities across all parts of the company are brought together to focus on the unmet needs of our intelligence and defense customers. As in any large enterprise, it’s hard sometimes to step back and say how can we bring things together,” Zitz told SpaceNews at the 2017 GEOINT Symposium.

 Intelligence agency veteran Robert Zitz joined SSL to focus its U.S. military and intelligence business. Credit: MDA
Intelligence agency veteran Robert Zitz joined SSL to focus its U.S. military and intelligence business. Credit: MDA

Canada-based MDA drafted a U.S. Access Plan more than a year ago to expand its government business. As part of that plan Lance, former Harris Corp. chief executive, stepped into the role of MDA chief executive and established SSL MDA Holdings in San Francisco in 2016. In April, MDA announced Richard White, a former Harris Corp. and Capstone Corp. executive, would become president of SSL Government Systems and Zitz would join the management team.

Long before the U.S. Access Plan was written, MDA provided U.S. government customers with data from the Radarsat constellation. “The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is one of the largest and most important consumers of that data,” Zitz said.

In addition, MDA Information Systems, an independent U.S. company based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, provides extensive support to commercial and government customers due to its expertise in image and data processing. MDA Information Systems, for example, uses computer algorithms coupled with imagery drawn from NASA’s Landsat Earth imaging satellites to identify facilities large enough to be militarily significant, under an NGA contract called Refined Persistent-change Model, Zitz said.

Going forward, MDA executives see additional ways they can support defense and intelligence customers. Through its Space Systems Loral division, MDA builds large commercial communications satellites for a variety of customers and small Earth imagery satellites for Planet subsidiary Terra Bella. As government agencies look for ways to reduce the cost, speed up acquisition and provide fewer large targets for potential adversaries, they may turn increasingly to commercial manufacturers like SSL, Zitz said.  

SSL also works with NASA and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency through two separate efforts to demonstrate in-orbit satellite repair and maintenance. That work, which combines SSL’s spacecraft expertise with MDA’s robotics know-how is “not just important to civilian missions it’s important to the national security as well,” Zitz said.

Through DigitalGlobe, with its constellation of high resolution Earth imaging satellites and expertise in data processing, MDA gains another foothold in the intelligence market.

“NGA likes to say we are not interested in pixels, we are interested in answers,” Zitz said. MDA plans to provide those answers by extracting valuable information from disparate sources of data, he explained.