The recent decision by
congressional appropriators to put the brakes on a procurement of up to two commercial-class imaging satellites for national security users makes sense given the questions that have surrounded the program from the start.

Advocates of the Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collection, or BASIC, program have yet to make a compelling public case for buying a system that appears to replicate capabilities already deployed by the commercial sector. BASIC, which also has been the subject of a bureaucratic tug of war between the Department of Defense and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), looks to be at odds with presidential policy, which dictates that the government – including the national security community – rely to the maximum practical extent on commercial imagery.

Indeed, these issues have been raised by a key supporter of the BASIC program: John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. In an Aug. 15 memo, to cite one example, Mr. Young said the Defense Department and ODNI needed to clarify the requirements for BASIC given what the commercial sector can offer in the area of so-called Tier 2 imagery – which in terms of sharpness and other factors falls somewhere between the Tier 3 data readily available from private companies and Tier 1 imagery, which is the exclusive domain of the highly sophisticated satellites operated by the government.

One thing that has been missing from recent public discussions and documents concerning the government’s overhead image-collection architecture is a clear explanation of where the lines dividing adjacent tiers are drawn and why. Moreover, the acknowledgement by Mr. Young and others that commercial data providers can meet many Tier 2 requirements begs the question of whether there ought to be just two imagery categories rather than three.

Scott Large, director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, which would buy and operate the BASIC satellites, says government-owned systems are more responsive than those operated by the primary
commercial data providers, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. In other words, he says, customers with time sensitive needs, including strategic and tactical decision makers, would get data more quickly from a government-owned system like BASIC.

A new report by the House Intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence touched upon that concern but noted that it is the government’s responsibility, as the anchor customer for commercial data, to set the requirements for its delivery. The report, based on interviews with government and industry officials in the national security field, questioned whether the data-delivery speed limits faced by commercial providers are the result of government-imposed constraints, as opposed to any inherent weaknesses.

To that end, the report, which covered a broad array of national security space issues, recommended that a panel of the relevant senior government and industry officials be convened to assess whether there are in fact any barriers to speeding the delivery of commercial data. The report said the panel should determine the cost of removing technical barriers, should they be found to exist, and seek to eliminate any unnecessary policy barriers. Further, the report recommended that the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence recommend to the next administration whether the current remote sensing policy should be clarified or strengthened.

It is not certain that these same concerns motivated members of the House and Senate appropriations committees to withhold funding for the space segment of the BASIC program. The lawmakers might have been skeptical of the compromise between the military and intelligence community over BASIC’s procurement and management strategy, or perhaps unconvinced that the National Reconnaissance Office should be buying commercially available systems rather than developing cutting-edge technology.

But it is noteworthy that Mr. Young, in a Sept. 12 memo that was to set the BASIC satellite procurement in motion, directed the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to begin buying commercial data to meet Tier 2 requirements and said the government would evaluate the option of eventually handing BASIC satellite operations over to the private sector. The memo gave appropriate recognition and support to commercial capabilities, but in doing so it further muddied the distinction between BASIC and privately owned satellites.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the appropriators did not cancel all funding for BASIC; a significant portion was fenced off pending the results of a study by the ODNI and the Defense Department on their full range of imagery requirements and how to fulfill them. It will be impossible to carry out that study in good faith without fully taking into account what the commercial data providers bring to the table and at what cost. The appropriators also directed that industry participate in the study.

It certainly is safe to say the appropriators felt – and many others in Congress agree – there are too many legitimate questions swirling around BASIC to press ahead with a satellite procurement at this time. This is not a bad thing: With DigitalGlobe and GeoEye having recently launched BASIC-type satellites, the government has a time cushion, and new information to work with that should help it come up with an imagery-collection strategy that can better withstand congressional scrutiny.