- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (UPI) — A team of 54 military specialists at an Air Force base in Colorado pours over commercial satellite imagery of American military encampments, trying to see what an enemy might possess: vulnerabilities and opportunities.

The pictures are not hard to come by. It only takes a credit card and a mailing address, and within hours, days or weeks, depending on the provider, anyone can have 1-meter resolution pictures of U.S. troops in Djibouti, or Afghanistan or any other place on the globe.

"The genie is out of the bottle and what we have to do is adapt accordingly in the intelligence arena," said Kevin O'Connell, a senior analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank.

On Friday, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency bowed to that reality by signing three-year contracts with two Colorado-based satellite imagery companies — Space Imaging and DigitalGlobe — that could be worth $500 million to each.

The Defense Department has come a long way since October 2001, when it bought up all the commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the private company Space Imaging, barring access to it by media organizations and other buyers for three months — the duration of the decisive ground offensive that toppled the Taliban.

Locking up the imagery allowed the Pentagon to shield from enemy eyes bases and troop movements, while finding the enemy in mountainous and forbidding terrain.

This time, however, the terms of the agreement are not exclusive access.

What's different? Israel and France have their own commercial capabilities, and the Indian government has launched its own imagery satellites.

"This is a totally different concept of operation," O'Connell said.

The idea now is not to limit the availability of imagery — a practical impossibility — but for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to use it to their best advantage.

"I was in the Pentagon in early '90s I tried to limit the access through legislation and it turned out to be a misguided effort," said Lt. Col. Anthony Russo, commander of the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron at Schreiver Air Force Base, Colo., in an interview with United Press International. "My approach now is not to try to stop it but to try to deal with it."

Russo deals with it by leading a team of military specialists, civilians and contractors in training field commanders in how commercial imagery and space-related equipment — like global positioning system jammers — might be used against them by enemy states or terrorists. It's a matter of learning to see what an enemy looks for, and then recommending ways to mitigate it on a battlefield.

One of his main references is an al Qaida training manual. There are specific citations of what vulnerabilities the terrorist organization looks for.

"At some point in time, you look at the competitive landscape and say, 'I can't buy everyone out all the time, so (you) need to use it better and faster than everyone else,'" O'Connell said.

The contract NIMA entered into Jan. 17 is less a reflection of a new approach toward imagery analysis than a chance to buttress a nascent business that the national security community has decided is vital to American interests.

CIA Director George Tenet last summer issued a memo directing NIMA to enter into just such a contract.

"My goal is to stimulate as quickly as possible and maintain into the foreseeable future a robust U.S. commercial space imagery industry," he wrote.

The commercial imagery from various satellites — with resolution ranging from 0.7 of a meter to 1 meter — could take a major burden off high-cost and overtaxed spy satellites, according to Ann Florini of the Brookings Institution.

"It would be extremely expensive and difficult to cover every part of the world (with existing U.S. government satellites). This is something the private sector can do better than the public sector," Florini told UPI. "As long as these companies get to a point where they are established, then they have providers (with) lots of sources and can take their choice of broader overviews and save the spy satellites for extremely detailed looks at it."

O'Connell agreed.

"Let the commercial world work the lower tier, and let scarce government resources be applied to the exotic capabilities," he said.

The contract is also an important shot in the arm for an industry that has had a difficult time getting started.

The government contract is like an "anchor tenant" in a big shopping mall, Florini explained. It draws in the business and will keep the industry afloat while private sector and small government users discover ways to use the imagery — for humanitarian aid, for environmental monitoring, and even for urban planning.

The industry has not been doing as well as early investors thought it would, although the industry accounting numbers are privately held, Florini said.

Still, the explosion in commercial imagery is not entirely good news.

"It's a tool — you can probably bet they will try to use it against us," said Russo.

He added, however that it is not "inherently dangerous."

"The first concern that most people have when they see that imagery is 'Oh my God, what if a bad guy gets hold of this?'" Florini said. "It's conceivable. It's possible but it's a lot harder to use than it looks like.

"I think we got to used to thinking of it as particularly threatening because it was the sole province of the superpowers for so many years. But there is not any particular reason to think of it that way," she said.

Mark Brender, a spokesman for Space Imaging, said his company is required to exercise caution in whom it sells its products to.

"Under the terms of our license, we are prohibited — and have very strict due diligence clauses — from selling satellite imagery to known terrorist states and known terrorists. We are very, very proscribed in our dealings," he told UPI.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon needs to adjust rapidly to a newly detailed "threat environment," according to O'Connell.

"The strategy needs to adapt very, very quickly in this area and across the spectrum in national security functions," he said.

The military will have to learn how the imagery can be used against them and also how to exploit the imagery so it can be used against an enemy.

"We call that denial and deception," explained Russo. "If I know an adversary is looking at a certain area, I might put out a dummy platoon of tanks, or I might camouflage my activity. You've got this vulnerability and maybe you can't do anything about it, but you might be able to misdirect what an adversary sees from space."

The military is taking notice. Since the Space Aggressor Squadron was first created in October 2000, Russo's calendar has become more and more busy with requests from theater commanders and intelligence agencies to teach them what his team knows about commercial imagery.

"When we stood up, (we) thought we'd do four major exercises a year," he said. "In our second year we did seven. This year we are doing 13. And next year, we will be doing 22. That's a geometric progression."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide