NGA Advisory Panel Warns Against Reliance on External Data Sources

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  Space News Business

NGA Advisory Panel Warns Against Reliance on External Data Sources

By WARREN FERSTER and TURNER BRINTON
Space News Staff Writers
posted: 01 November 2007
12:27 pm ET









SAN ANTONIO —


A




much-anticipated study intended to help the U.S. national security community sort out the role of privately owned satellites in its imagery-collection architecture has some in industry complaining that it overemphasizes government self-reliance and calls for expanding the definition of commercial providers to include traditional space-hardware vendors.









These concerns are not universally shared, however. Other industry officials questioned whether it would be prudent for the government to depend on outside providers for capabilities so critical to U.S. national security. U.S. government officials, meanwhile, speaking at the Geoint 2007 Symposium, said




commercial imaging satellites play a critical national-security role today and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.





The “Independent Study of the Roles of Commercial Remote Sensing in the Future National System for Geospatial-Intelligence




” was commissioned in January by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and National Reconnaissance Office




in




response to congressional concerns that the U.S. intelligence community is not taking full advantage of commercial satellite




capabilities. It was prepared by a panel led by Peter Marino, an independent intelligence consultant and chairman of the NGA Advisory Group.

Dated July 16 but not released until Oct. 23, the




Marino report




said the government must not become dependent on external sources for the provision of critical satellite intelligence data and recommends against the current NGA model of using multiyear contracts to procure imagery from commercial providers.





The




panel’s favored alternatives are a return to the traditional model in which the government uses its own satellites to meet its image-gathering needs and a hybrid option whereby commercial data providers would be given the opportunity to partake in government block satellite buys. Under the latter scenario, the government would procure




low- to medium-resolution imaging




satellites in blocks of at least four. Commercial data providers would then be given access to two of the satellites to sell data to non-U.S. government customers; or they would be allowed to buy the satellites at a discount cost.

“The panel concurs that the business case that mitigates the most risk is for the U.S. government to competitively acquire satellites and supporting infrastructure to ensure maximum control and access to imagery on demand,” Marino said in his cover letter accompanying the report.





The NGA’s current contracting arrangement with primary U.S. commercial imagery providers, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye,




financed the construction of both companies’ satellites by purchasing a large amount of imagery up front. It is not clear whether the government would be an anchor customer for data from the privately owned satellites under the hybrid option outlined in the Marino report.






DigitalGlobe
of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Dulles, Va., are heavily dependent on their contracts with the NGA, which processes and distributes satellite imagery to both the military and the intelligence community.



The U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Policy signed by President George W. Bush in April 2003 directs that the government rely “to the maximum practical extent” on commercial remote sensing capabilities for both national security and civil applications. The Marino report concedes that the option of full government ownership and operation of national security imaging satellites might be at odds with that policy. The report says the hybrid option giving commercial data providers the option to piggyback on top of government satellite procurements is in deference to that policy.

But the report also recommends that the government “expand the definition of what constitutes ‘commercial’ to reflect market realities that every vendor and supplier operates in the commercial marketplace.”

The capabilities in play between the government and commercial data providers are the low- to medium-resolution satellites similar to those operated today or planned by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. The report says – and industry and government officials generally agree – that the more capable, multifunction satellites with high resolutions and great agility will continue to be owned and operated exclusively by the National Reconnaissance Office.





Senior




military and intelligence officials here at the symposium expressed their support for the commercial




imagery providers. U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for the government to ease restrictions put on the companies that are detrimental to their business.



“We have to get commercial into the hunt, we have to broaden this industry, we have to incentivize it and take the handcuffs off,” Cartwright said. “And we’ve got to do it now.”

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John T. Sheridan, deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office




, said the government’s classified imaging systems always will be overbooked, which means there




always will be a need for commercial imagery.

In a media briefing here




, Rear Adm. Robert Murrett, the NGA’s director, said he will be meeting




with top executives of GeoEye and DigitalGlobe the week of Oct. 29




to discuss the findings of the Marino report.



Murrett
declined to say whether the NGA will help underwrite future generations of commercial imaging satellites, but said his agency’s relationship with the commercial providers will continue well into the future.



In a previous interview, Murrett




said a decision on the NGA’s future commercial strategy will be made in the coming months.

In an Oct. 24 interview, GeoEye spokesman Mark Brender said




the Marino




report is just one of several inputs senior government officials may use to map out its




future national imagery-collection architecture.

“Government officials may also consider other reports such as three




congressional




commissions over the last several years that point the government to increase their reliance on commercial imagery data providers as well as the 2003 Presidential Directive that says that all federal agencies should use commercial satellite imagery to the ‘maximum practical extent,'” Brender said.

DigitalGlobe
spokesman Chuck Herring said his company would not comment on the Marino report.

DigitalGlobe’s
government-subsidized WorldView-1 imaging satellite launched in September and is operational. Next year the




company will launch the more-capable Worldview-2 satellite




, which it is financing privately. GeoEye will launch its NGA-backed




GeoEye-1 imaging satellite early next year. The company announced Oct. 18 that ITT Corp. will build the instrument for a




more capable GeoEye-2 satellite, slated for




launch in 2011. GeoEye Chief Executive




Matthew O’Connell said in an Oct. 23 interview that the company will build GeoEye-2 with or without government assistance.





The Marino Report at a Glance



Identifies three tiers, or mission layers, of spy satellite capabilities:


  1. High-resolution, highly agile, multifunction satellites costing $ 1 billion apiece or more. These are inherently government-owned and operated systems.



  1. Mid- to high-resolution, single-function satellites based on proven technologies and costing $300


    million to $500 million apiece.




  1. Low- to medium-resolution satellites for collecting narrow-swath imagery. These satellites are


    based largely on commercial components and cost $50 million to $250 million apiece. It is this


    category of capabilities that the commercial operators are best able to provide.




Provides four alternatives, or business cases, for acquiring these capabilities and risk assessments for


each:







  1. Multiyear data buy from commercial satellite operators (most risk).



    DigitalGlobe and GeoEye,


    the primary U.S. data providers, currently hold such contracts with the U.S. National Geospatial-


    Intelligence Agency.







  1. Satellite production-service level agreements (most risk).






    The commercial data providers act


    as middlemen between the government and hardware vendors, buying and operating the satellites


    under multiyear contracts with the government. The government partially funds development


    costs in exchange for tasking priority and other accommodations.







  1. Multiyear satellite purchase (minimum risk).



    The government buys and operates Tier 2 and Tier


    3 satellites using commercial-like, firm-fixed-price contracting arrangements and block purchas


    es. The panel says this option may run counter to the White House policy directing the military


    and intelligence community to look first to the commercial sector to meet their imagery needs.







  1. Hybrid of options 2 and 3 (minimum risk).



    Government buys satellites in blocks of at least four


    and makes two available to commercial data providers for sales to non-U.S. government cus


    tomers under terms to be negotiated. Alternatively, commercial data providers could purchase


    two of the satellites at a volume discount and with the government covering all non-recurring


    research and development costs.



NGA