Imagery of western Luhansk Oblast, north of the cities of Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk, Ukraine, as shown in this PlanetScope image from June 9, 2022. Credit: Planet
Imagery of western Luhansk Oblast, north of the cities of Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk, Ukraine, as shown in this PlanetScope image from June 9, 2022. Credit: Planet Credit: Planet

WASHINGTON — Executives at Planet’s annual conference April 12 spoke enthusiastically about the power of satellite imagery in addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues and responding to fast-moving global events.

The capabilities of Earth imaging constellations can be of great use to the U.S. military, which requires constant eyes on the battlefield. However, the way in which commercial imagery is procured by the government does not necessarily support military commanders’ needs for timely intelligence, officials said during a panel session at Planet’s users conference Explore 2023.

U.S. Space Force officials said they are working with the intelligence community to try to streamline the process of delivering commercial imagery and provide means to rapidly analyze the data to commanders on the ground. 

Brock Edwards, director of business development at Planet, noted that DoD imagery users increasingly emphasize “what we call the low latency requirements.” These are scenarios when a military unit needs information on “operational tactical timelines in order to make a decision.” 

Col. Eric Felt, director of architecture integration at the U.S. Space Force procurement office, said the service is working to “take advantage of the opportunities that are being created by commercial innovation and get these new technologies to the warfighter as quickly as we can.”

But it’s not going to happen quickly, he said. “Our basic strategy is to embrace commercial as an integral element of every space architecture,” Felt said. “But in the DOD, you will not be shocked to hear that we do not move that fast most of the time.”

“It’s not just the acquisition process,” he said. “It’s the budgeting process. It’s the requirements process. There’s a whole bunch of people in the building that you have to get to agree on your way forward. So we are never going to innovate as fast as the commercial sector,” Felt said.

Edwards said DoD “will potentially have to lean forward a little bit to commercial because commercial is postured and ready to support,” he added. “This is a partnership. Both sides need to lean forward to understand what their constraints are.”

“We’ve got some work to do,” said Jeremy Leader, director of the Space Force’s Commercial Services Office, a new organization established a year ago to connect the military with commercial space services providers.  

Leader said the Space Force is working with the intelligence community to figure out better ways to support battlefield operations. The National Reconnaissance Office has awarded sizable imagery contracts to commercial companies, including Planet, but military users have also sought their own contracts with companies so they can directly task satellites and get imagery faster. 

“You can never buy enough time when you’re a combatant commander,” Leader said. “So I’ve been less focused on buying the imagery from these companies and more focused on the tasking platforms that we need to put in place with the combatant commands.”

The idea would be to create a marketplace where providers make their data available, he said. “The combatant commands would submit a tasking and it just automatically tasks any of the satellites that are available.” 

Planet Explore 2023 conference. Credit: Planet

Ukraine war showed value of commercial imagery

When it comes to procuring commercial satellite imagery, one of the problems is the complicated procurement process, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last year. 

GAO noted the widespread use of commercial remote sensing data since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The intelligence community and DoD, however, continue to employ a potentially fragmented, slow, and cumbersome approach to incorporating these commercial capabilities into intelligence and defense operations,” the watchdog agency said. 

Defense and intelligence agencies have not come up with and “effective approach to scale emerging commercial capabilities into operational support contracts in a timely manner,” GAO said. 

The Space Force in 2021 was designated as the integrator for joint service requirements of space technologies, GAO noted. “However, there is no guidance that addresses organizational roles and responsibilities across the IC and DoD related to commercial satellite imagery.”

‘Warfighters need data’

These same issues were discussed last week at at the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Forum. 

“Reconnaissance from space has become ubiquitous,” said Kevin Chilton, a retired Air Force general and chairman of the Mitchell Institute. “And yet I hear frustrations from some commercial providers” because military commands don’t have funding to buy imagery directly from the industry. 

“Warfighters need this data,” Chilton said April 5. “The National Reconnaissance Office’s collectors have different priorities, different speed of delivery requirements.”

The regional military commanders should not have to compete for commercial imagery funding against national requirements, Chilton said. “A policy fight is looming, I think. Who’s going to control these assets that are going to be essential for victory in the various combatant commands?”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...