Challenges for U.S. Intelligence Satellite Program

The House Intelligence Committee critically reviewed the U.S. intelligence satellite program in a rare unclassified report on the subject.  See “Report on Challenges and Recommendations for United States Overhead Architecture,” House Intelligence Committee, House Report 110-914, October 3, 2008.

Source: Steve Aftergood of the SECRECY NEWS, from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, Volume 2008, Issue No. 97, October 8, 2008.

This report comments on the use of commercial remote sensing service providers. Read the whole post for an excerpt from this report.



The inclusion of industry representatives from both traditional defense contractors and commercial service providers ensured that the Intelligence Community’s use of commercial services was addressed extensively. The Government purchases services from both commercial communications (both space and ground based) and commercial remote sensing companies.


National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 27: “U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy” (2003), and NSPD 49: “U.S. National Space Policy” (2006) both dictate that commercial imagery services must be used where applicable and affordable. NSPD 49 states:


“Use U.S. commercial space capabilities and services to the maximum practical extent; purchase commercial capabilities and services when they are available in the commercial marketplace and meet United States Government requirements; and modify commercially available capabilities and services to meet those United States Government requirements when the modification is cost effective.”


On the surface, this guidance is clear. In practice, the Commercial Data Providers (CDPs) suggest that they often struggle for inclusion in the Intelligence Community’s pool of satellite imagery providers. They state that Government investment in commercial services, as opposed to Government purchase of Government-owned high-resolution systems, has been limited.


Participants agreed that commercial imagery services are a complementary capability that contributes substantially to national security. Despite this acknowledgement, executive branch participants suggested that commercial services had significant limitations that prevented them from being used more frequently to satisfy Government needs.


CDPs state that one reason given by Government customers for their reluctance to rely on commercial imagery is the lack of “assured access.” Assured access is loosely defined as the ability of the customer to collect and receive data whenever it is needed, including the ability to be prioritized over other customers. Executive branch participants seem to believe that the Government is only assured access to systems that it physically owns. The commercial providers believe that a contractual agreement would afford the same assurance.


Commercial providers have heard that potential customers believe that it takes longer to task and receive imagery from commercial systems. The executive branch is responsible for both the tasking and dissemination of commercial data to Government customers. They are also responsible for the requirements levied on CDPs that enable the dissemination of their data to those customers. Given where the control lies, Subcommittee members question whether CDPs’ inability to satisfy all users is driven more by the constraints imposed on them, rather than by anything inherently related to a commercial service. To eliminate the argument, tasking and dissemination systems will need to improve to enable commercial providers to better support DOD and customers in the Intelligence Community.


CDPs report that some Government agencies have not invited them to bid on high resolution systems. At times these Government agencies have restricted proposals to Government-owned systems and not considered whether a commercial service can satisfy the need. Agency general counsels should review the legality of this limitation. Members question why the best solution would not become apparent after an open competition. A decision based on a balance between the proposed technology, the total cost (including Government personnel in the case of a Government-owned solution), and the past experience of the bidder in developing a system of the same caliber, should provide the best outcome.


Recommendations on the use of commercial space services


A joint panel of the DDNI/Collection, NRO, NGA, and commercial data providers should assess whether any barriers impede the tasking or delivery of commercial imagery to potential users. If the panel identifies any technical barriers, it should perform a cost-benefit analysis of removing those barriers. The panel should also seek to eliminate policy barriers that unnecessarily impede the use of commercial imagery services. The DNI and SECDEF should approach the use of other commercial services that serve Government, such as communications or other applications, in the same way.


The DNI and SECDEF should recommend to the next Administration whether to strengthen or clarify NSPD 27 and 49 so that all acquisition organizations understand their responsibilities under these directives with respect to using commercial services.



The report also fails to address critical issues related to use of commercial satellites, even though a series of Presidential decision directives encourages their use to the maximum extent possible. Commercial remote sensing has become an increasingly viable answer to a host of national security demands. Recent Administration decisions to acquire tiers of collection platforms that can operate within a comprehensive architecture require it to address how the U.S. will incorporate commercial remote sensing into its architecture and to perform a more robust cost analysis balancing commercial costs against the flexibility and capability gained through ad hoc collection tasking changes, while also continuing the research and development for next generation systems. The issues involved in these discussions are complex and important and the Majority report doesn’t even mention them.

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