Intelligence: Commercial Satellite Photos In The News


March 17, 2022: Ukraine is, more than Google Earth in 2005, demonstrating the usefulness of commercial satellite photos. Google Earth was made possible by a U.S. government decision to rely more on commercial communications satellites because it was too expensive to put up enough government satellites to deal with the demand during conflicts, especially once UAVs like Predator entered service using high-resolution digital cameras that streamed their video back to the U.S. and later to local American military users. Commercial communications satellites led the military in terms of technology because they served so many commercial users. That led to allowing commercial photo satellites and sharing some of the older government tech and giving a lot of business to one of the first commercial satellite firms, DigitalGlobe in the late 1990s. In 2005 Google used DigitalGlobe services to run Google Earth. Other American and European firms followed and in 2017 DigitalGlobe merged with SSL to create Maxar; the largest and best equipped commercial satellite photo provider in the world. Maxar is profitable with sales of nearly two billion dollars a year from clients like Google, news organizations and governments needing a steady and reliable supply of satellite photos covering customer specified areas.

Commercial photo satellite firms continue to have an impact on government users. In 2021 the U.S. NRO (National Reconnaissance Office), which supervises the design, construction and operation of photo and other satellite imagery space satellites needed by the U.S., decided to embrace their commercial competitors. NRO wants to take advantage of the growing competition and technical advances in the commercial imagery satellite industry. This became particularly important since 2017, when the NRO took over from the NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) the job of finding and purchasing commercial satellite imagery that the NRO satellites were unable to obtain because of a shortage of satellites or because some commercial satellites were able to obtain forms of imagery that NRO satellites were not yet capable of. This new commercial satellite imagery procurement program is open to all major operators of commercial satellites who want to supply the Department of Defense with their products on a timely basis.

Until 2017 NRO depended on two of the largest commercial satellite operators for this, but those two firms recently merged to form Maxar, eliminating the competition that kept prices low and quality high. That merger was not a problem, because there were also many new commercial satellite operators eagerly seeking to get a share of the market with new, innovative, and less expensive imagery.

To take advantage of this, the NRO had to go about procurement more effectively in order to get the most for their imagery budget. The new NRO system is largely automated to allow many vendors to list what they can do and at what cost. Commercial imagery providers will provide special services to large customers and the NRO has become one of the largest. The only problem with NRO procurement was that there was a lot of bureaucracy involved that slowed down the process. Military users often found out about new satellite imagery developments from the trade publications and websites that report on new types of imagery or services available. NRO was criticized for delays in obtaining these new capabilities. The NRO has long been criticized for this and chronic failure to get military users what they could obtain as private users and do it in a timely manner. The military must obtain expensive and specialized commercial imagery services via the government agency with the money and authority to procure these new, and often expensive, commercial imagery products. The military is wanting for the situation to improve now that all imagery purchasing authority is concentrated in the NRO. Changes like the automated selection process should speed things up but so far, it’s hard to tell. Once the vendor for a new imagery product the military wants is selected, the bureaucrats still must sign off on purchase orders and ensure prompt delivery to the military users.

What got all these reforms going was the NGA admitting in 2016 something everyone already suspected, that it obtained most of its satellite photos from commercial satellites. This was no secret inside the military. That’s because since the late 1990s, when commercial photo satellites began to show up, military users were quick to buy and use this unclassified data. The commercial photo satellites gradually caught up with their military counterparts in most capabilities.

Military photo satellites first appeared in the 1960s and their images were meant for intelligence agencies, not combat commanders in the field. These military photo satellites were long the leader in the tech that delivered higher resolution photos and other forms of imagery. The military got most of the imagery but more and more went to other government agencies, like the NGA and government departments that supplied unclassified imagery to businesses. There was an unmet demand from commercial firms and military units who could use this imagery if they received it in time. Commercial firms created a demand for unclassified satellite photos and these eventually appeared, but you had to pay for them. The U.S. military then had no cash or authority to buy commercial satellite imagery.

What changed all this was the 2005 appearance of Google Earth. This easy-to-use web-based app revolutionized military intelligence. The military didn't like to admit it at first. Google Earth was putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy-to-use fashion that anyone could take advantage of new opportunities. In addition to the target audience of travelers, one could explore the world from anywhere. This revolutionized operations for the military professionals as well as terrorists, other criminals and academics. Military users quickly appreciated what a splendid new tool they had with freely available unclassified commercial satellite imagery.

To the U.S. Department of Defense, Google Earth's major problem was not it's low cost and ease-of-use, but the way it showcased the shortcomings of the NGA/NRO, which was responsible for taking the satellite photos, spiffing them up as needed, and getting them to the troops. Trouble was, the government stuff still wasn't getting to the troops that needed it, when they needed it. This was made obvious when Google Earth showed up, and demonstrated how you can get satellite images to anyone, when they need them and do it with minimal hassle.

The NRO, NGA and other government agencies liked to keep all their satellite (and aerial) imagery in classified archives, just in case they contained some secrets a potential enemy could use. Google Earth did great damage to this attitude. Changing minds in the military intelligence community isn’t easy. Restricted access to satellite photos is an old problem. Since the 1980s, when lots more satellite images became available, often on very short notice, generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery" have been complaining about the difficulty they had in getting their hands on this stuff or permission to pass it on to the officers and troops in combat zones who need it most.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on photo satellites since the 1960s, and the troops always seem to get leftovers, if anything and usually too late to be of any use. At the same time the NRO regularly conned Congress out of more money so they could build more satellites, and neat systems that would get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods never arrived, or never arrived in time. Generals gave angry testimony before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 Kuwait War. The satellite people seemed contrite and said they would make it right. If given the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing.

Then the troops got access to Google Earth in 2005 and saw firsthand what they have been missing. To make matters worse the software Google Earth uses to get the job done was first developed for the NGA. But the way the NGA operates you had to worry about security considerations and all manner of bureaucratic details before you could deploy a useful tool so they really couldn’t use the Google interface on a wide scale. Mention that the troops are fighting a war and the NGA will point out that you still must deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight.

Soon after 2005 the troops were beating NGA over the head with Google Earth and Congress took notice. However, NGA bureaucrats were close at hand and the angry troops are far away. Progress was still slow. But at least the troops had Google Earth. Unfortunately, so did the enemy. Nevertheless, over the next decade the army was able to go directly to commercial satellite photo providers who, every year, were putting up more capable photo satellites. Many of the photos from these new satellites were higher resolution and not available on Google Earth. But the army could afford to buy them, as could other commercial customers and give the troops instant access because all these commercial satellite photos were unclassified.

After a while the NGA stopped pouting and got on board with the use of lots of unclassified satellite photos. This also spurred the NGA to make the high quality (high resolution and with other enhancements) spy satellite photos more easily available to the troops, or at least the army intel and planning specialists who worked out the details of how battles would be fought. This led to other intel agencies making their data (especially from electronic data collection satellites) available quickly, often in real time, to the troops who needed it.

While Google Earth opened the floodgates and gave the troops instant access, what happened first was the availability of high-resolution satellite photos that could be of use to combat troops. This began in the 1960s with the first appearance of the KH (Key Hole) series of photo satellites. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959 but the first successful one was in 1960. Thus, until the 1970s the film-using satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations. The KH 1 through 9 series satellites sent film back in canisters (for high resolution pictures), to be developed. The Keyhole 9, the first of which went up in 1971, was not only the last of the film satellites but the largest and most capable. Its basic design was used by the subsequent digital camera birds. The KH 9 could cover large areas at high (for the time) resolution of .6 meters (24 inches). This was more than adequate to spot and count tanks, aircraft, and even small warships. The 19th, and last, KH 9 went up in 1984. The KH-9 was a 13-ton satellite with multiple cameras and 4 or 5 reentry vehicles for returning the film for developing and analysis. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird.

The age of film began to fade when the first digital satellite, the KH 11, was launched in 1976. These birds were large, nearly 15 tons, and the digital cameras could obtain better resolution and broadcast the photos back to earth. The resolution was such that objects 70mm (a few inches) in size could be identified from 200 kilometers up. Digital cameras were more flexible than film and eventually surpassed film in all categories. The KH-11 telescopic cameras operated like a high-resolution TV camera. Images were captured continuously and transmitted to earth stations. Computers were used to finish the process and produce photos identical to those taken by a conventional film camera. You could even have motion pictures, as well as indications of heat and the nature of the various items. KH-11 could often tell what kind of metal an object on the ground was made of.

All this did not come cheap. These birds cost over (in current dollars) over $3 billion to build and launch and lasted three or four years, depending on fuel usage. Moreover, you needed two of them up at the same time in order to guarantee coverage and save the birds from having to change orbit too frequently. The most recent KH-11, the 18th, was launched in 2021.

There have been at least four models of the KH-11 since the first of five "Block 1s" was launched in 1976. Since the 1960s over a hundred KH series satellites have been launched. The next generation, the KH-12, was supposed to have been launched in 1987. That was delayed because of problems with the space shuttle after one exploded during launch. A belated KH-11 was launched in October, 1987. The KH-12 was delayed, even though it had several advantages over the KH-11. Along with improvements in ground data processing equipment, the KH-12 could send back data in real time. You could watch events on a large, high-resolution screen as they were happening. This would also allow military headquarters and other users to get their satellite information directly, without going through a CIA or NRO processing center. Data from the more esoteric sensors would still have to be studied by the specialists elsewhere. The KH-12 was expected to make users even more enthusiastic about satellite reconnaissance. It did, in the form of a much-upgraded KH-11 which were called KH-12s but are still officially known as KH-11.

The flood of photographic and electronic data was growing far larger than the force of analysts needed to make something of it. In addition to the KH series birds, there were radar and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) satellites constantly broadcasting data. Then there are the Defense Support Program satellites, which use heat sensors to locate the hot plumes of missile launches.

There still isn't a real (new design) KH-12, and that's partly because commercial photo satellites have become cheaper and more convenient for military use. Many KH-12 features were simply added to subsequent KH-11 models. This was cheaper than building the new KH-12 design and involved less paperwork. Thus, those in charge of American space operations are asking that less money be spent on developing new satellites and more spent on building up a reserve of GPS and communications satellites that can quickly be launched to replace wartime losses. The Department of Defense has already been buying more commercial satellites, rather than much more expensive, usually late, and sometimes canceled, custom designed military birds. Contributing to this change were bumbling bureaucrats who mismanaged development projects and journalists who headlined the failures.

It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can provide. The government also wants to ensure secrets are kept by having complete control over a pair of commercial grade satellites.

The troops and military planners continue to be enthusiastic users of Google Earth, which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military, commercial grade, photo satellites eliminated the potential for information leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more capacity to do low resolution jobs. Another bonus of Google Earth was the appearance of crowd-sourcing. This is what happens when a large number of people scrutinize open-source satellite photos and find useful military information before the professionals do.

The people who run the military satellite system are increasingly concerned with wartime needs, and that is what brought out the request for spare GPS and communications satellites. These are relatively cheap, compared to the spy satellites, and most needed if a future war spreads to the orbital zone and puts some American birds out of action. There is also growing concern about the debris in orbit and the increasing risk of satellites being damaged, or destroyed, by these small fragments of older satellites and the rockets that put them there.

The smaller, cheaper and lighter, but very capable commercial satellites became the model for a military program to have some ballistic missiles (including those in submarines) equipped with one or more of these smaller satellites for use in wartime when most of the military and commercial satellites have been disabled. This is something the NRO could get behind because they knew that the commercial satellites had taken the lead in satellite design innovation. There were few special military applications left that commercial satellites had not usurped.




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