As U.S. President Barack Obama contemplates changes in space policies and military space posture, it is a virtual certainty that his administration will amend National Security Policy Directive (NSPD)-27, the commercial remote sensing policy of former President George W. Bush issued in 2003. The new administration should not entirely sweep aside the NSPD as it represents more than a decade of enlightened policymaking, spanning two presidential administrations and both political parties. The Obama team, thanks to former President Bill Clinton and Bush, has a successful foundation upon which to shape the domestic elements of a new policy and an opportunity to forge a different direction in the international arena where the previous administrations’ directives fell short. The policy goals of the past — the advancement of commercial remote sensing capabilities and the industry to further the nation’s national security and economic objectives — resonate still. Any new policy should finally cement commercial imagery’s place in the national security imagery architecture and, with a renewed focus on opening new markets and promoting exports, advance the nation’s larger need for economic recovery and job growth.

Unlikely Bedfellows 

The Bush and Clinton policies were striking in their progressive view of the role of the space industry in economic and national security affairs while they differed in tone and preoccupation — the end of the Cold War for Clinton and homeland security and the global war on terrorism for Bush. The two presidents’ policies in the commercial remote sensing domain were more notable for their similarities rather than their differences. Both shared the guiding objective of a pre-eminent role for U.S. commercial imagery providers internationally. Both, wrongly, believed that a robust commercial imagery industry would increase foreign dependence on U.S. satellite systems and deter others from developing and operating their own commercial or national capabilities. Over a dozen competitive systems have been launched since 2000 and more are on the drawing boards globally.

Domestically, the policies have been successful. President Clinton with Presidential Decision Directive (PDD)-23 in 1994 enabled the commercial satellite imagery industry in the United States by allowing previously classified technology to be used for unclassified commercial purposes. President Bush entrenched the commercial imagery industry within the national security fabric by mandating that commercial imagery be used to the maximum practical extent by the U.S. government. The Bush directive provided political approbation for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) NextView program. NextView assisted in the financing of the successful launch of next-generation imaging systems from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe and furthered Bush’s goal of the U.S. government utilizing commercial imagery to the maximum practical extent. The challenge for President Obama is to extend the reach of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery for national security and economic gain globally.

The End of U.S. Remote Sensing Hegemony 

The world has entered something of a Golden Age of remote sensing and geospatial technology. Within the decade, more than 30 new high-resolution satellite imaging systems are planned for launch and operation. A globalized commercial imagery sector has broader strategic implications for U.S. national security, coalition building and technology and acquisition partnerships. U.S. imagery technology and information used to be an instrument of power for diplomatic and military advantage. With the rapid proliferation of very capable imaging systems, that U.S. leverage has diminished and a new reality has emerged: U.S. hegemony in remote sensing technology is over. The objectives of both the commercial remote sensing policy and associated export control regulations — the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) — have proven counterproductive. Any new commercial remote sensing policy needs to acknowledge the interconnectedness of ITAR and remote sensing, and align them better with larger policy goals of the country. Few remember PDD-23’s underlying theme to promote the export of advanced remote sensing systems and technologies as well as to permit the commercialization of the imagery data. Since 1994, no U.S. high-resolution systems have been exported. With this policy history and context as a backdrop, President Obama’s new policy should:

  • Rebalance the national security and commercial interest scales. The regulatory impulse of the executive branch since the dawn of the commercial imagery era has been heavily weighted toward preserving national security at the expense of economic interests — to protect U.S. and allied troops or U.S. technology advantage. The explosion of high-resolution systems globally makes most U.S. operational and technology transfer controls gratuitous and creates an uneven playing field for American imagery firms and satellite manufacturers.
  • Transition from technology dependence to alliance building. The U.S. defensive posture regarding exports and foreign technology transfer have contributed to the erosion of U.S. satellite dominance across all space sectors, not just remote sensing. The Obama team should adopt a more pragmatic view toward satellite technology exports. These systems can serve as a bonding agent for coalition operations, shared diplomatic aims, or economic advancement for U.S. firms and possibly allied partners. Remote sensing could be featured as an important piece of President Obama’s broader international agenda.
  • Prohibit government competition with U.S. firms. In the past two years, the Executive Branch has produced a range of satellite imaging options for future imagery capabilities that looked suspiciously like current and future commercial satellite imaging technology. Recent directives from the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence seem to have laid this issue to rest. As reported recently, NGA appears to be on an acquisition path through the Enhanced View program to procure unprecedented amounts of current and future imaging capacity beginning in early 2010. Commercial imagery companies have proven themselves more than capable of handling the most strenuous of NGA and Department of Defense tasking, collection and dissemination needs. The Executive Branch should continue expeditiously down this path.

Conclusion: A New Approach

As the golden age in remote sensing streams forward, the rest of the world has shown it doesn’t really need the United States. With the U.S. government program for commercial imagery support seemingly on solid ground for the foreseeable future, it is time to focus on approval, collaboration and technology sharing as the new pillars of remote sensing policy. Finally, if President Obama builds on the largely successful legacy of past policies, his administration needs to show the political will and leadership to implement what he directs, and hold agencies and departments accountable for results. The most eloquent president since John F. Kennedy should recognize that strong policy without equally strong investments, resources and dedication is simply poetry.


Dennis Jones is the president of The Jones Consulting Group LLC, and former vice president of business development and government affairs for GeoEye.