Diversifying Capabilities for Image Intelligence

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As international hostilities and the threat of terrorism contribute to global insecurity, nations are increasingly turning to space-based technologies to gather intelligence for defense and security purposes. The capability to gather image intelligence and its derived geospatial information is not widespread among the nations of the world, with less than a dozen countries having their own systems in orbit.

Traditional sources of image intelligence have been manned and unmanned aerial solutions and military-owned and -operated satellite systems. However, budgetary constraints on new generations of global reconnaissance satellite systems have led government defense agencies to explore other mechanisms to meet their image intelligence requirements.

Despite the relevance of defense and security at the top of most political agendas in the developed world, the number of countries operating Earth observation satellites specifically for defense and security purposes remains limited. Only nine countries operate Earth observation military and dual-use satellites — a relatively low number compared with the 24 countries operating civil systems. The discrepancy in these figures can be explained by the relative cost of a military Earth observation system compared with a civil generic (such as a Landsat-type moderate resolution data) system.

Policy objectives also have driven the acquisition of Earth observation capacity. The Earth observation defense programs of the United States and Russia have their heritage in the Cold War. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the United States has sought to maintain its fleet of satellites while the Russian fleet has been reduced, despite a recent resurgence in Earth observation investment. For European nations, defense has become a key policy objective, with growing support for developing autonomous capacity for high-resolution imaging satellites for national security purposes. Over the past decade, proprietary satellite systems have been placed in orbit as countries moved to decrease their dependency on third-party systems for military purposes. These include Germany’s SAR-Lupe system, Italy’s COSMO-Skymed, and Spain’s future Paz and Ingenio satellites.

However, because of high costs, the acquisition of defense/military Earth observation systems has been sensitive to government budget evolutions and policy change. This has been particularly evident in the United States, beginning with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and continuous budget expansions for defense, followed by budgetary overruns and management issues leading to the cancellation of large government initiatives such as the Future Imagery Architecture, the Space Radar program and the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.

Despite this, the U.S. government is considered to have the world’s most extensive proprietary network of reconnaissance satellites. This capability is supplemented with data obtained from the commercial sector, particularly from U.S.-based DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. Both operators have emerged as key partners for the U.S. National Geospatial-intelligence Agency (NGA) through large service-level agreements for satellite data and the support of a U.S. data policy of “buy commercial first.” With data sets of less than 1 meter from multiple satellites, improved image accuracy and reduced revisit times, commercial Earth observation data are becoming a viable solution for certain defense and military agency image intelligence requirements.

Through these commercial agreements, the U.S. NGA has emerged as the largest consumer of commercial remote sensing data globally. A recent Euroconsult study found that in 2009, the market for commercial data sold for defense and security applications was valued at $735 million, or 62 percent of the overall commercial data market. Of this total, 58 percent of the revenue, or $430 million, came from spending by the U.S. government.

The continued and increased use of commercial image intelligence data by the U.S. government would seem likely, particularly with the new EnhancedView procurement contract expected to be agreed upon this year, and the expected increase in NGA procurement of foreign commercial space-based radar data.

European governments have used a different approach to obtaining image intelligence data. With more-limited defense budgets, over the past decade they have sought to maximize image intelligence collection capabilities through dual-use systems and a move toward cross-border cooperation.

Under dual-use programs, end users from both the defense and civil government share the space-based image intelligence collection systems. The close relationship in Europe between homeland security and defense operations drives a crossover between civil and military users that favors the development of these dual-use missions. In addition to defense, other applications such as cartography, disaster management and precision agriculture across government and/or the commercial sector require similar high-resolution, high-accuracy data.

Examples of such systems include Italy’s COSMO-Skymed constellation and the French Pleiades. Such systems can create a commercial return for industry, as is being done through e-Geos (COSMO-Skymed) and Spot Image (Pleiades). Financing the procurement and operation of the satellite systems also can be spread between the two sides of the same government. In the case of both Pleiades and COSMO-Skymed, the majority of the financing came from civil government.

Data from dual-use systems are not subject to the same licensing restrictions as military satellites for third-party usage. And because the data are not considered classified, they can be disseminated more easily to commercial and other government users. This can be particularly beneficial during military operations. For example, data from the low-cost U.K. Topsat satellite system were distributed among allied countries for use during military operations in the Middle East.

Bilateral and multilateral cooperation is expected to become more prevalent as countries leverage their assets in order to gain access to systems operated by other nations. For example, France, which does not operate a defense radar satellite, will be able to access data from the German radar SAR-Lupe system beginning this year while Germany will have access to the French optical Helios system data. France has a similar agreement with Italy to access the radar COSMO-Skymed constellation.

Greater coordination and cooperation are particularly beneficial in Europe, which has seen a surge over the last decade in the development of government-owned defense systems. As a starting point, six nations (Belgium, Germany, Greece, France, Italy and Spain) committed to the development of the Multinational Space-based Imaging System (MUSIS) in 2006 with the aim to incorporate nationally developed systems and related ground segments.

While nations are finding it easier to answer at least some of their image intelligence requirements from satellite-based Earth observation, the sharing of capabilities is still mostly confined to the world’s most developed countries. Obviously, more than the nine countries that operate dedicated defense Earth observation satellites have image intelligence needs. The question remains how countries outside this close-knit group can fully meet their image intelligence needs to contribute to their nations’ security. Commercial data are becoming more widespread, though cost can still be high, and governments with image intelligence capability may be willing to share their capacity to relieve some of the budgetary pressures on their programs.

Globally, government-centralized procurement bodies have been established in some countries to consolidate the needs of government defense departments and decide upon the best mechanism for responding to their requirements. These include building sole-defense proprietary systems or dual-use systems, leveraging data through bilateral or multilateral cooperation, expanding aerial and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) capacity, or purchasing commercial data. With the growing demand for image intelligence solutions, a combination of these factors will likely be the trend of the next decade, and a growing number of systems — defense, civil-government and commercial — will respond to defense agency needs globally.

Adam Keith is the Montreal-based director of Earth observation for Euroconsult.