2021-09-27 22:23:50 Intelligence Agencies Pushed to Use More Commercial Satellites

Intelligence Agencies Pushed to Use More Commercial Satellites

WASHINGTON (AP) — Early this year, a cluster of satellites operated by an American company called HawkEye 360 scanned the Middle East and discovered radar and radio waves associated with a Chinese-based fishing fleet off the coast of Oman.

When the data was compared to information from NASA satellites that track light sources on the Earth’s surface, the company discovered the vessels were using powerful lights — a telltale sign of squid hunting — as they sailed into Oman’s fishing waters with their tracking transponders turned off.

The surveillance was a technological test, and the company did not notify either Oman or China. However, company officials stated that the work demonstrated the types of intelligence that can be gleaned from their satellites, which have also detected military activity on the border between China and India, tracked poachers in Africa for wildlife organizations, and tracked the satellite phones used by smugglers working refugee routes.

With Congress pressuring the Biden administration to use commercial satellites more frequently, intelligence officials are beginning to award new contracts to demonstrate that they can supplement the capabilities of highly classified spy satellites with the increasingly sophisticated services available from the private sector.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced on Monday that it had awarded HawkEye 360 a $10 million contract to track and map radio frequency emissions around the world, which the company claims will help identify weapons trafficking, foreign military activity, and drug smuggling.

The contract follows the National Reconnaissance Office’s award of a study contract to the company in 2019.

The director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s commercial group, David Gauthier, stated that collecting radio frequency data would help “tip and cue” imagery satellites, essentially telling officials where to look. The commercial data is also unclassified, allowing intelligence agencies to share it with allies and partners more easily.

Some civil liberties experts are concerned about the growth of commercial satellites with greater ability to peer down at Earth. According to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, the ever-increasing number of commercial satellites has eroded privacy.

However, Mr. Aftergood believes that the government’s contracts with commercial satellite companies have not yet drawn much criticism because government satellites are far more powerful than commercial satellites, at least for the time being.

The precise capabilities of the government’s satellites remain a closely guarded secret. During the previous administration, however, President Donald J. Trump used Twitter to share a photograph of an Iranian launch site taken by a classified American satellite that was included in his intelligence brief. The image was much more detailed than commercial satellite images of the same location.

Those lagging commercial capabilities have dampened enthusiasm in some intelligence agencies for moving forward with more private-sector contracts. However, Congress is pressuring the intelligence agencies to move more quickly.

This year’s Intelligence Authorization Act, as amended by the Senate, includes provisions to increase spending on commercial satellite programs. While intelligence agency leadership is on board, congressional aides say there is still reluctance in some corners of the agencies to embrace commercial technology.

Current and former congressional officials acknowledge that the government continues to design and operate the most exquisite and cutting-edge intelligence technology. Commercial start-ups, on the other hand, are offering ways to cover much of the world cheaply, relieving the workload from the most important government satellites.

If passed by Congress this year, the new intelligence bill would establish an innovation fund, making it easier for the National Reconnaissance Office to acquire more commercial capabilities faster and pushing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to experiment more with awarding outside contracts to analyze a variety of imagery.

Former Republican House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, who now serves on the HawkEye advisory board, said part of the problem was a reluctance within the government to use a lesser, but far cheaper, product for intelligence collection and analysis.

“Commercial imagery is a great way to keep our eye on what’s going on, so that the more exquisite government systems can be focused elsewhere but we don’t go blind,” Mr. Thornberry explained. “However, there is still a cultural apprehension about relying on something over which you do not have control, or not as much control as you do over your government systems.”

Mr. Thornberry believes that government officials should recognize that a $10 million commercial satellite is not a competitor to the $1 billion satellite built by the US government. The less expensive satellite can serve as a backup as well as aid in the more efficient operation of government satellites.

“If someone decides to knock our billion-dollar satellites out of the sky or blind them in some way, we have to make sure we have some backup so we don’t go completely blind,” Mr. Thornberry explained.

The National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency in charge of many of the government’s most classified spy satellites, places a premium on the resilience of a system that combines big and small satellites, government-built and commercial systems.

“Our adversaries are attempting to threaten and challenge our advantage in space and the capabilities that we provide and have provided for a long time,” said Pete Muend, director of the National Reconnaissance Office’s commercial services program. “A diverse architecture comprised of national and commercial satellites operating in multiple orbits is critical to our national security.”

In 2018, the National Reconnaissance Office opened a program office to bring in more commercial sources of information. Since then, the agency has awarded three multiyear contracts for up to 100 million square kilometers of commercial imagery each week.

While the National Reconnaissance Office has primarily focused on acquiring commercial imagery, it has also investigated other commercial space technology, such as HawkEye’s radio frequency satellites and others that collect radar data and images from the spectrum beyond what the human eye can detect.

“I wouldn’t say they can collect unique areas of the globe, but it is a different and complementary way of looking at things,” Mr. Muend explained. “We are very excited about how they can generate insights.”

HawkEye has previously tracked China’s commercial fishing fleet, capturing ships with their beaconing systems turned off and violating protected waters near the Galapagos Islands. However, the company’s work tracking the fleet illegally entering Oman’s waters in January was the first time it had paired its data with NASA’s satellites.

While transponder beacons are supposed to be used to identify ocean-going commercial vessels, they can be turned off. HawkEye, on the other hand, can identify Chinese fishing vessels based on the radio bands emitted by their radar as they search for fish.

“This is more evidence of bad behavior by the Chinese sovereign fishing fleet, which is effectively a plague of locusts circumnavigating the earth, sucking up natural resources,” said HawkEye 360 CEO John Serafini.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington and Oman’s embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

The company refers to its technology as an orbital tip jar that can detect anomalies and direct other satellites to an area to investigate.

“The importance of HawkEye is that it gives you intelligence about the pattern of life over time,” Mr. Serafini explained.

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Intelligence Agencies Pushed to Use More Commercial Satellites