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Monday, October 3, 2022
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GAO Calls for Better Use of Commercial Satellite Imagery in the National Security Space

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the IC and DOD have a slow, cumbersome and potentially fragmented approach to incorporating emerging commercial capabilities. Until they address this, GAO says, the U.S. risks losing a technological advantage over emerging competitors, like China.

Commercial satellite companies can play a key role in providing imagery and data critical to national security issues. For example, the war in Ukraine has drawn attention to how governments are using commercial satellites to track troop movement and the impact of attacks.

Commercial remote sensing satellites have transformed the way the U.S. approaches critical national security issues. With the commercial space industry expected to grow significantly in the coming years, the Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DOD) have emphasized that they must team with commercial GEOINT providers.

However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the IC and DOD have a slow, cumbersome and potentially fragmented approach to incorporating emerging commercial capabilities. Until they address this, GAO says, the U.S. risks losing a technological advantage over emerging competitors, like China.

The total number of satellites in space increased from 801 in 2005 to 2,990 in 2020—according to the Aerospace Corporation—with much of this growth occurring overseas. The Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database showed further growth to approximately 5,000 active satellites orbiting Earth as of December 31, 2021. Foreign competitors are growing rapidly in the commercial satellite industry. For example, China grew immensely, going from no commercial satellite companies in 2011 to 25 companies in 2018. 

GAO’s review has found that the IC and DOD have not clarified roles and responsibilities for the acquisition of commercial satellite imagery. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is the central acquirer of commercial satellite imagery for IC and DOD components; however, multiple DOD organizations have acquired commercial imagery over recent years. 

In May 2022, NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office (CSPO) signed three electro-optical operational support contracts with commercial vendors—BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet—satisfying a portion of current geospatial-intelligence (GEOINT) requirements. According to NRO, the contracts include a five-year base and multiple one-year options with additional growth through 2032. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) had contracts with Maxar and Planet before transferring them to NRO after the latter agency assumed responsibility for the acquisition of commercial imagery in 2017. NRO also added an operational support contract with BlackSky before signing new contracts in May. CSPO’s spending on commercial imagery contracts represents a small portion of the NRO GEOINT directorate’s overall spending.

GAO found there is no guidance that addresses organizational roles and responsibilities across the IC and DOD for commercial satellite imagery acquisitions. Further, two key changes—the expansion of the commercial sector and the increased reliance on space—could significantly increase demand for commercial satellite imagery. Without clarifying roles and responsibilities, the potential for unnecessary overlap will only increase as interest in commercial imagery grows across the IC and DOD.

The watchdog noted that the IC and DOD have established requirements for future commercial acquisitions focused primarily on foundational intelligence but have limited ability to incorporate emerging commercial satellite capabilities in a timely manner. Although they have explored utilizing emerging capabilities, the IC and DOD have not developed an effective approach to bring these capabilities into GEOINT operations. 

For example, from fiscal year 2019 through 2021, NRO spent some of its commercial imagery budget on emerging capabilities, but those efforts have not generally led to sustained funding. For example, NRO had awarded five study contracts as of July 2021 but to date has transitioned only one commercial vendor (BlackSky) from a study contract to an operational support contract.

U.S. government policy is to maximize the use of commercial space capabilities, but GAO found that the IC and DOD have not developed performance goals and measures to assess progress toward that strategic goal. Consequently, GAO believes the IC and DOD could miss the commercial opportunities they need to maintain their advantage over competitors such as China and cannot ensure that the intent to maximize commercial satellite imagery is met.

GAO made four recommendations to DOD and the IC: 

  • The Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence, should ensure that clear roles and responsibilities across IC and DOD stakeholders are established for the acquisition of commercial satellite imagery, such as through a broad assessment or evaluation of organization responsibilities, and then ensure that these roles are updated in DOD guidance and communicated to all relevant stakeholders. 
  • The Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence, should ensure that NRO, in coordination with NGA and IC and DOD stakeholders, assesses various approaches to determine which ones are most effective in incorporating and scaling emerging commercial satellite capabilities into operational support contracts in a timely manner. 
  • The Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should ensure that NGA and NRO develop specific performance goals and measures that would support progress toward the goal of maximizing the use of commercial satellite imagery.
  • The Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should ensure that NGA, in coordination with IC and DOD stakeholders, develops guidance to establish specific roles and responsibilities for commercial analytic services that use remote sensing data. The guidance should note the components responsible for addressing resourcing visibility and for identifying performance goals and measures related to commercial analytic services that use remote sensing data.

DOD concurred with GAO’s first recommendation and said that it will revise DOD directives for NRO and NGA to capture decisions related to the roles and responsibilities associated with commercial imagery acquisition. DOD also concurred with the recommendation to assess various approaches to determine which ones are most effective in incorporating and scaling emerging commercial satellite capabilities into operational support contracts in a timely manner. The department stated that it will continue to assess if other approaches—apart from NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement—would afford greater ability for incorporating and scaling emerging commercial imagery.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) only noted its concerns that the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in GAO’s draft report were missing important aspects of the IC’s efforts.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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