NEAR CHANTILLY, VA.: The White House plans to reconsider the existing policy governing the use of commercial imagery by the Pentagon and the intelligence community, raising even more questions about the direction of the commercial imagery market.
The head of space policy at the National Security Council, Chirag Parikh, is reportedly leading the effort. Several government sources familiar with the effort were careful to point out that while the policy would certainly be reviewed there was no firm commitment to change the existing policy.
The most likely part of the policy to be changed, several experts told me today at a conference on the future of the geointelligence industry, would be the line in the policy that decrees the US government will: “Rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs for military, intelligence, foreign policy, homeland security, and civil users.”
A senior official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that several studies and the experience of officials found that even with after deep cuts are made to the geospatial commercial imagery budget the country will get roughly 80 percent of the current capability for much less money.
Any change to the policy would come on top of deep cuts that are being made to the purchase of commercial space imagery by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. The cuts to the NGA budget are reportedly on the order of several hundred million dollars over the next five years, I’ve heard from several sources.
An analysis by CAPE (the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Analysis office) “showed even if you took budget hit… you could still get more imagery capability, better resolution, spectral diversity and better revisit even if you drew back to historical spending levels,” Kelly Gaffney, deputy assistant director of National Intelligence for systems and resource analysis, told the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation conference. Gaffney also said the ODNI performed its own analysis that reached the same general conclusion.
Regardless whether more capability can be found through increased computer processing or other technical means, Gaffney delivered the straight truth: “The years of budget growth in the intelligence community are over. This is a tighter fiscal environment than we’ve seen in more than 10 years.”
For the two companies that provide the government with commercial imagery, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, there were few words of comfort about the future.
“Generally, the take on the street toward anything defense is very negative,” said Andrew Koch, senior vice president for defense and homeland security at Scribe Strategies and Advisors, and it’s even worse for the two companies. The cuts to the EnhancedView contracts have soured Wall Street’s views on the companies’ prospects. And, generally speaking, Wall Street is “just not going to be there” for public-private partnerships such as that between the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the two companies, he said.
Add to that his view that “third parties” are unlikely to invest in GeoEye and DigitalGlobe and you can be sure some executives are even more likely to be depressed today than they were yesterday.
But for the government, users of their data, all that matters is that they get data and there is an enormous shift underway in geospatial data, with airplanes, websites, cell phones and other sources huge new sources of it. The trend over the next few years is likely to be toward commoditization of the data, several experts said at the conference.
“Think of a world where we don’t need to rely on satellites but can use planes and other sources,” said Josh Hartman, a consultant who was the Pentagon’s top space and intelligence acquisition official. The government can, he said, “tap into the data bazaar.”
This doesn’t mean that imagery from the commercial sector won’t be used or that the government won’t pay for it. Gaffney said the DNI analysis found that “a predominant amount of space-based imagery does come from commercial imagery sources” and it is used to build much of the foundation of geospatial intelligence.
Also, whenever the United States needs to share geospatial intelligence with allies, for disaster response or for many combat scenarios commercial imagery is ideal as it can be shared easily and produced quickly. Gaffney said that the Arab Spring and the Japanese reactor crisis at Fukushima had both been events where commercial imagery played a prominent role in our response.
Even with that, it seems fairly certain that either DigitalGlobe or GeoEye will vanish before too long. They have already made plays to take each other over. The consensus among the experts I spoke with was that the country can get by with only one commercial spy satellite company.