U.S. public and private researchers are about to get an unprecedented look at the scope of China’s military buildup.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which oversees U.S. spy satellite imagery, is preparing to produce public reports on China’s military and national security programs as part of an intelligence authorization law approved for fiscal year 2021.
The law calls on Vice Adm. Robert G. Sharp, NGA director, to launch the open-source project on the Chinese military by June 25.
“Per the legislation, NGA has 180 days from enactment to reply on a way forward to the specifics of the directives within the Intelligence Authorization Act,” said Don Kerr, chief of NGA public affairs. “NGA is currently working this formal reply.“
The disclosure mandate was folded into the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill signed into law in December. It requires the NGA to work with academic and nonprofit research groups for the open-source intelligence program.
The agency currently conducts a similar program, called tearline.mil, that since 2018 produced intelligence reports using commercial satellite images on North Korea, China’s camps for ethnic Muslim Uyghurs, and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure program, which U.S. officials have called a stalking horse for the ruling Communist Party’s global expansionism.
The legislation specifies that Adm. Sharp will use satellite imagery and related photo analysis for activities in China that pose risks to U.S. national security. Reports by the agency will be posted on websites.
Targets of the intelligence program outlined in law include all “notable” activities of the ground, navy, air force and rocket forces of China’s People’s Liberation Army. An additional focus will be the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, the relatively new military branch in charge of military spying and cyberintelligence and space warfare.
China’s internal security forces, the People’s Armed Police, and the Chinese coast guard, which have conducted military-style activities in the South China Sea, also are included on the NGA tasking list.
Congress also wants the NGA program to use its imagery capabilities to monitor China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. Beijing has been locked in a standoff with the United States and several regional nations over its aggressive sovereignty claims in the strategic waterway.
Satellite imagery reports also will be produced in Chinese maritime activities in the Indian Ocean region and broader ocean activities.
Also covered will be global health threats, including indications and warnings of disease outbreaks in China with pandemic potential, along with analyses of China’s record on climate change and environmental degradation.
NGA officials are charged with seeking out academic and nonprofit groups or multiple groups for the program, which must be carried out for at least 10 years.
The provision was added by Democratic staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on intelligence. The committee did not respond to requests for comment.
Model of transparency
The NGA’s Tearline program is viewed as a model of intelligence transparency, and the agency has worked on several projects with the Rand Corp. think tank and several universities. Tearline could be the model for the new China imagery analysis project.
Under Tearline, NGA buys high-resolution commercial satellite imagery for research groups. The agency then provides tips to researchers to help identify objects and topology depicted in the images. Reports from the program are then posted online and shared with U.S. intelligence agencies.
Some U.S. researchers already are conducting satellite photo research on the Chinese military.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a private imagery analysis group linked to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has closely tracked Chinese island-building in the South China Sea. Commercial imagery in the project has identified Chinese military deployments on disputed South China Sea islands, including missile deployments.
The militarization of the disputed islands has been a major sticking point in U.S.-Chinese relations, and a focus of increasing U.S. warship and aircraft operations in the sea.
According to the new law, the NGA will regularly “identify raw, unclassified geospatial data that could improve the research conducted under the partnership if the data was made publicly available; and make such data publicly available.” The agency will brief Congress on the program toward the end of the year.
Commercial satellite photos have already revealed a number of key aspects of PLA military bases and weapons, including imagery of an underwater tunnel used by Chinese submarines on Hainan Island in the South China Sea; construction of a Chinese aircraft carrier at a shipyard; and expansion of China’s first overseas military base, located in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
Other photos have shown mock-ups of Taiwanese government buildings and military bases that analysts say are indications of Chinese military planning for an attack on Taiwan.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the federal open-source program on the Chinese military is urgently needed. He said he has advocated for U.S. intelligence to make public details of China’s military activities for years.
“This is at least half a decade late, especially when we see what the PRC’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative is doing every day,” Capt. Fanell said.
China’s probing initiative is a pro-Beijing network of mainly Chinese academics and retired military personnel who seek to promote Beijing’s official narrative that most of the South China Sea is Chinese maritime territory. The Trump administration declared those claims illegal under international law.
“Sharing facts about Chinese activities at sea is not just good for democracy; it is also smart diplomacy,” Capt. Fanell said.
Making public detailed data on Chinese activities also could be used by U.S. and international publics to make more realistic conclusions about China’s growing power, he added.
“Making such information widely available would help counter spurious Chinese narratives of American actions as the root cause of instability in the Western Pacific. Both outcomes are in our national interest,” he said.