The Case for Commercial Imagery

The Budget Threat and What Could be Lost

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, after an air strike. Image collected October 10, 2001, courtesy of GeoEye.

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, after an air strike. Image collected October 10, 2001, courtesy of GeoEye.

The Jones Consulting Group
Washington, D.C.

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article here extolling the progressive virtues of the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in creating EnhancedView – a decade-long program to provide additional commercial satellite imaging capacity, upgraded ground architecture and value-added products and services to meet NGA and warfighter mapping and geospatial intelligence needs. Apparently, my enthusiasm got the best of me. The ink was barely dry on the contracts with GeoEye and DigitalGlobe before some in the Executive and Legislative Branches began to question the need for the program. The worsening fiscal situation has also brought EnhancedView – now NGA’s largest program of record – increasing budget scrutiny.

The Administration has sent conflicting messages – President Obama has directed that over $400 billion over 10 years be eliminated from the Pentagon budget in the next decade. At the same time, the President endorsed the now so-called ‘2+2’ future satellite imaging architecture in which two commercial-class satellites and two more sophisticated classified satellites would be built to meet future imaging requirements of the DOD, Intelligence Community, Department of Homeland Security and other government organizations.

Existing commercial imagery policy as well as the President’s National Space Policy, and corresponding Department of Defense National Security Space Strategy, resoundingly endorse greater and sustained adoption of commercial technologies and partnerships to meet the needs of the U.S. government (USG). While no DOD program should be immune from budget tightening deliberations, EnhancedView remains exactly the creative public-private partnership model DOD needs in these challenging budgetary times.

Commercial capabilities have been serving the warfighting and intelligence communites and coalition partners for over a decade through both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns and in countless military contingencies, as well as human-itarian and environmental crises around the world. Commercial satellite images are commonplace in the media and in our daily lives through Google Maps or Bing and in numerous other location-based and commercial applications and services. Still, critics point to the large price tag associated with the 10-year program – over $7 billion – as justification enough to begin wielding the budget axe in the coming fiscal years.

Fortunately, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) injected some discipline into the budget process for FY ‘13 and ‘14 by mandating a joint study by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI) to evaluate programmatic impacts on the industry as well as requirements satisfaction in an increasingly austere budget landscape. A report is due to OMB in mid-April 2012. As the joint team begins its review in earnest, they should be reminded of the commercial industry’s virtues and strengths – key attributes that have been obscured during ‘Inside the Beltway’ studies in the past.

Virtues of the Commercial Imagery Programs

Commercial imagery is less expensive than that delivered by classified systems. Commercial ground and communications infrastructure costs are a fraction of the costs of national systems – cost elements that would have to be applied in any objective analysis of commercial and classified system costs. That said, the debate should not be about commercial versus national systems. Rather, it should be about what mix of commercial and classified systems meets which government mission needs and how the government should invest to ensure those capabilities are developed and maintained.

Commercial imagery is unclassified. Commercial imagery has been an important intelligence tool in every coalition or allied operation of the last decade, including Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and most recently during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) operations in Libya. Every year, testimonials abound at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) GEOINT conference regarding the value and utility of unclassified imagery in the coalition context. U.S. and Allied warfighters need the data; they use it for mapping, operational planning, battle damage assessment and other geospatial intelligence needs.

Commercial imagery companies invest in systems that benefit the USG and taxpayer. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. commercial satellite imagery industry launched their capabilities without a single penny from the U.S. Treasury. The industry invested close to $2 billion of corporate resources to launch the IKONOS, Quickbird and OrbView satellites in 1999 and 2000. The companies re-invested hundreds of millions of dollars in next generation capabilities in the NextView contracts and again most recently with EnhancedView. In addition to having these capabilities financed in part by commercial companies, the government then benefits from an aggressive discount pricing structure to ensure daily geospatial requirements continue to be cost-effectively met. The government’s costs are further offset by the industry’s growing international and commercial revenues.

Commercial imagery supports the space and intelligence industrial base. The commercial imagery industry is a robust and extensive ecosystem comprised of satellite manufacturers, subsystems developers, ground infrastructure hardware and software manufacturers, communications providers, launch system developers, and second- and third-tier parts suppliers. All of these partners contribute to the creation of the best commercial capabilities in the world. Most, if not all of them, support other important satellite programs for the USG. Their participation in the commercial industry provides diversity of experience as well as continued refinement of their technology and capabilities, which have secondary benefits for other government programs.

Commercial imagery incubates other commercial business and activities. The market for commercial imagery continues to evolve. While it is true that the industry’s revenue mix tilts decidedly towards defense and intelligence business, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe continue to develop and serve international and commercial markets. Each company manages a global affiliate and partner supply chain that utilizes commercial imagery for regional or individual market segments – real estate, oil and gas, and transportation, as well as location-based services and a growing list of ubiquitous online mapping applications.

Commercial imagery meets the government’s needs. Commercial imagery provides daily value to defense, intelligence, homeland security analysts, operators and policy-makers. The cap-abilities flying today and in development for tomorrow are leading-edge commercial technologies that address a large majority of national security geospatial intelligence demands. The government will likely see large savings in the defense budget with the military’s exit from Iraq and eventual troop drawdowns in Afghanistan. Ironically, the need for comprehensive Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance capabilities in that region as well as other global hot spots will only increase.

As noted above, the budget debate shouldn’t focus on commercial or classified. They are two different classes of systems that were developed to address different intelligence and information needs. The USG cannot afford to be without either capability. The relative speed with which some parts of the government have begun a reconsideration of the program is somewhat startling given the industry’s obvious benefits to the DOD. More importantly, the companies are performing daily collection well and efficiently executing their EnhancedView contracts.

In Shakespeare’s King Richard II, the Earl of Salisbury, in a fit of nostalgia, says, “O, call back yesterday, bid time return,” (Act III, Scene ii). The Administration got it right with the 2+2 decision almost two years ago. While we can’t go back to 2009, the White House and Congress should stick to the original ‘2+2’ that launched EnhancedView, ensuring that the Nation has the most capable and diverse overhead architecture for tomorrow.

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