Dave Gauthier, director of NGA’s Commercial and Business Operations Group, shared the results of the agency's first Olympic-themed evaluation of international Earth observation capabilities at the GEOINT 2021 Symposium. Credit: SpaceNews/Debra Werner

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — U.S. defense and intelligence agencies that increasingly rely on commercial satellites for imagery and other services are discussing how they might compensate companies if their spacecraft is damaged during an armed conflict, officials said Sept. 15.

If private sector satellites become part of a hybrid public-private space architecture, “then we have some obligation to think about commercial protection,” David Gauthier, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s Commercial and Business Operations Group, said at the Intelligence and National Security Summit hosted by AFCEA International, and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. 

Gauthier also is chair of the Intelligence Community Commercial Space Council, a newly formed organization that develops policy recommendations for senior leaders. 

The council met Sept. 13 and the topic of indemnification came up, said Gauthier. “We’re engaging with our industry partners to have that discussion more fully. And everything is still on the table.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks echoed that sentiment during a fireside chat at the symposium.

She said the prospect of a conflict where satellites would be targeted “does require us to think about how we contract effectively, including issues like indemnification,” she said. It’s one of the options that is “absolutely on the table.”

Gauthier said he was pleased to hear that DoD is considering indemnification, and he expects the issue to continue to be discussed. 

The topic is also being discussed on Capitol Hill, said Frank Garcia, professional staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

He said he is “very optimistic” that the DoD and the intelligence community will work together and “come up with a comprehensive approach.” 

Gauthier said commercial imaging satellites are critical to the U.S. government because they provide unclassified data that can be shared with the public, and they add resilience, especially during a conflict when an adversary could target a U.S. asset regardless of whether it’s private or government owned.

A recent report by the Aerospace Corp. warned that during crises and conflicts, commercial space actors risk getting caught in the crossfire, and an attack could occur either because a commercial system is misidentified as a military system or because that commercial system is operating in support of the United States. 

Gauthier said the intelligence community in the runup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine doubled its procurement of commercial satellite imagery from established suppliers but also from new providers of synthetic aperture radar data.  

“I can’t say enough about the world class technology industry in this country. They are able to innovate on the fly,” said Gauthier. 

John Huth, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s office of space and counterspace, said at the symposium that China and Russia are fielding a broad range of anti-satellite weapons, including lasers and electronic jammers, that could be aimed at commercial satellites. 

Another major risk is the ever increasing presence of space debris objects that fly uncontrolled and can damage satellites if they collide. 

Huth said DIA is looking to work more closely with commercial space data providers to improve the government’s ability to track threats in orbit. 

Maxar Technologies, the government’s primary supplier of electro-optical satellite imagery, deploys sensors on its satellites for in-space surveillance, which helps increase safety, said Tony Frazier,  Maxar’s executive vice president and general manager of public sector Earth intelligence.

“We’re really excited about the potential” of what can be done with data collected by satellites in orbit and analyzed using artificial intelligence and machine learning, said Frazier.

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...