WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and U.S. Space Command signed an agreement to improve threat intelligence sharing with commercial satellite operators.

The agencies last month signed a Commercial Space Protection Tri-Seal Strategic Framework that is intended “to better enable protection of commercial remote sensing space assets vital to the intelligence collection mission,” said Peter Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office. 

Muend discussed the agreement Aug. 8 during a forum hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

The framework is designed to ensure NRO-contracted commercial imagery providers are informed of emerging and imminent threats to their space assets, he said. “This helps them make informed collection operations decisions in their support of U.S. government and non-governmental customers.”

“Space is getting more and more contested,” Muend said.

Growing use of commercial satellites

The U.S. intelligence community and DoD are increasingly reliant on commercial satellites for imagery and other critical data. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, commercial space companies have provided critical intelligence and communications services to Ukraine and its allies, and Russia’s military has threatened to target commercial systems.

In this environment, it’s important for the government and industry to work together to protect assets, Muend said.

The NRO is the U.S. intelligence agency responsible for developing, launching and operating the nation’s spy satellites. It is also the primary acquirer of commercial imagery for the federal government. NGA analyzes imagery and distributes intelligence to national security agencies. U.S. Space Command is responsible for military operations in the space domain. 

Government and industry to share intelligence

The strategic framework focuses on three main areas: providing threat information to the commercial sector, establishing a process to investigate and respond to anomalies, and coordinating plans for data collection. 

“In terms of providing threat information, we’re looking to U.S. Space Command to be able to relay that information on behalf of the interagency, not only at the classified level, but all the way down to and including the unclassified level,” Muend said. 

Companies that are under contract with the NRO would be obligated to inform the government if they notice any nefarious activities such as electronic jamming or cyber intrusions. The information would be turned over to Space Command for further investigation and to recommend a response. 

Under the agreement, NGA also would be informed about potential hostile activities “to ensure that our collection strategies are well informed by the threat landscape,” said Muend. 

Agreement a ‘first step’

He said the strategic framework is a “first step” and will be further refined over time. 

“Space is definitely an extremely contested environment, and it’s only getting more so, not only for government systems operating in space, but for our commercial systems as well,” Muend said. “It goes without saying that the principal adversary actors in that domain are Russia and China.”

To take advantage of emerging space industry innovation in remote sensing and imagery analytics, the NRO is building a hybrid architecture with data from commercial and government satellites analyzed side by side.

Cyber attacks, he said, are the threats that “we most worry about.” 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...