Editorial: The NGA Steps Up

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In awarding imagery contracts with a combined potential value of $7.3 billion over 10 years to commercial providers DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has unmistakably signaled a long-term commitment to an industry that for the better part of a decade has proved its worth to the national security community.

DigitalGlobe and GeoEye reacted to the EnhancedView awards by disclosing plans or contracts for new satellites to be launched in the coming years, which barring failures will ensure imagery continuity while in the nearer term expanding the collection assets at the NGA’s disposal.

Over three successive imagery purchasing vehicles dating back to the $500 million ClearView program begun in 2003, the NGA has shown increasing confidence in the commercial remote sensing sector’s ability to provide goods and services that previously were entrusted only to elite U.S. government agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). By most accounts, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have delivered, providing critical support to U.S. and allied troops operating in harm’s way at times when the NRO’s collection assets were said to be stretched thin due to heavy demand and a failed development program.

ClearView was established to take advantage of satellite imaging capabilities that industry deployed on its own dime. The NGA’s follow-on NextView program underwrote a new generation of more-capable commercial satellites.

But even in the NextView era, as DigitalGlobe and GeoEye ordered new satellites and raised additional investment capital, the government’s future level of commitment to the industry remained in question. NGA officials would not make clear, for example, whether the post-NextView program would provide upfront funding for new satellites or continue to support two imagery providers.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon and intelligence community drafted plans to procure two satellites that looked suspiciously like the privately owned systems in a move that appeared directly at odds with a presidential policy directing U.S. government agencies — including the Pentagon and intelligence community — to rely on commercial remote sensing capabilities to the maximum practical extent. Among the justifications offered for the government-owned system, dubbed Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collector, was that commercial firms were incapable of delivering imagery with the timeliness required for many national security applications.

As recently as 2008, commercial imagery providers complained that they weren’t being fully included in the intelligence community’s pool of satellite imagery providers, according to a report released late that year by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

With EnhancedView, however, the government seems at long last to have overcome any lingering reluctance to embrace commercial providers as the primary source of data for routine collection needs. The government’s broader approach, known informally as two-plus-two, reserves only the most technically demanding requirements to the highly capable NRO-operated systems that for national security and economic reasons are not commercially viable.

EnhancedView also appears to address some of the longstanding concerns voiced by government officials about reliance on the commercial imagery. For example, DigitalGlobe’s $3.55 million EnhancedView contract includes $750 million for value-added services, an undisclosed portion of which will be used to reimburse the company for investments to expand its global imagery reception infrastructure. This presumably will speed the company’s responses to NGA tasking orders. Moreover, the EnhancedView program is structured so as to guarantee government access to the companies’ satellites — in DigitalGlobe’s case it is 60 percent of the company’s full collection capacity.

None of this really matters, of course, if the commercial sector cannot deliver on its promise to provide imagery at less cost — or at least provide better value for the money — than comparable government-owned systems. There won’t be any publicly available hard evidence to prove that claim, which some would dispute, due in part to the fact that intelligence budgets are classified. But while it’s true that DigitalGlobe and GeoEye are heavily dependent on U.S. government business, each draws a significant portion of its annual revenue from commercial customers, meaning the NGA is not carrying all of their overhead costs. In other words, there is reason to believe that commercial imagery provides a better value for the taxpayer. This is in addition to the fact that commercial imagery is unclassified and thus can be shared more freely with allies and state and local governments.

Things will not always go smoothly in this government-industry partnership — there are bound to be delays and technical glitches, and contractual disputes are not out of the question. But EnhancedView is an unambiguous vote of confidence in a maturing industry’s ability to perform at an even higher level than before, and the government has every right and reason to expect that it will.