Imagery Firms Warned of Slower-growing U.S. Government Sales

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PARIS — The U.S. government expects to increase its use of commercial satellite imagery for civil and military purposes in the coming years, but the increase will “descend, slightly” from its previously expected level, U.S. National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper said.

“There is no bigger fan of commercial imagery than I,” Clapper said in an Oct. 9 address to the Geoint 2012 conference in Orlando, Fla. “It has tremendous advantages [and] can be shared with foreign allies and partners.”

Nonetheless, Clapper said that “in a constrained funding environment” tough choices need to be made and one of those choices was to slow the previously planned rate of increase in government purchases of commercial satellite imagery.

The core of the government’s satellite imagery purchasing is the EnhancedView contract signed with two commercial imagery providers, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Herndon, Va. The companies had been awarded nearly equal portions of the $7.3 billion EnhancedView program, which began in September 2010 and was envisioned as a 10-year program.

But EnhancedView’s contract structure was a series of one-year commitments that would be renewed nine times.

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) informed GeoEye that its EnhancedView funding for the coming year would be sharply reduced from previous levels. For the moment, DigitalGlobe’s funding under the program appears intact.

Following months of doubt about NGA funding levels — doubts that caused the two companies’ stock to plummet — the NGA decision led DigitalGlobe and GeoEye to propose a merger of the two companies.

The proposed merger is under review by the U.S. Justice and Defense departments.

Exactly what the future shape and funding volume of EnhancedView will be is not clear. Clapper said government spending on commercial imagery is still increasing.

“All we’ve done is descend, slightly, the slope of the increase on commercial imagery,” he told the Geoint conference, organized by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. “It’s still very important and we’ll still need it. But in the whole … landscape of national intelligence programs … we had to make some hard choices based on the demand and the requirements versus what we can afford.”

Speaking after Clapper at the annual Geoint event Oct. 9, NGA Director Latitia A. Long declined to answer a question on how the government views the proposed DigitalGlobe-GeoEye merger, preferring to reiterate NGA’s plans to continue to make use of commercial satellite imagery.

“Nothing has changed in that respect,” Long said. “As we have sized our current and future overhead architectures we have set aside X amount of requirements for commercial imagery. That will remain.”

Long said NGA is responding to Defense and Justice department questions concerning the proposed merger.

“What is key is that it is an enduring part of our architecture,” Long said of commercial satellite imagery and what distinguishes it from the higher-resolution images available from classified, government-owned defense and intelligence observation satellites.

Unlike classified imagery, NGA’s commercial imagery can be shared with allies, with U.S. emergency response teams for disaster response “as well as what we do in what is known as the multinational geospatial co-production program,” Long said. “It’s a consortium of about 30 countries. We share the commercial imagery, and others create the foundation data and mapping products. So for each cell they produce, they get 10 in return. The same goes for us. We don’t have to do it all.”

Long said NGA is trying to increase its collaboration with foreign providers of satellite Earth imagery, including the European Union Satellite Center in Torrejon, Spain, which does not have imagery of its own but purchases images on the commercial market and, on occasion, gets some military imagery from member governments France, Germany and Italy.

“There are many countries out there that are building and launching [observation] satellites,” Long said. “We can’t do what we do on our own.”

 

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