Commerical imagery prompts NIMA doubts
- By Dan Verton, L. Scott Tillett, L. Scott Tillett
- Oct 17, 1999
The launch last week of the world's highest resolution commercial imaging satellite offers the National Imagery and Mapping Agency an unprecedented opportunity to expand its coverage. But experts are split on whether it jeopardizes the future of the controversial agency.
With the successful launch last week of Space Imaging Inc.'s Ikonos satellite, industry has overcome one of the most important obstacles standing in the way of direct imagery support to military and intelligence operations - high-resolution pictures capable of supporting intelligence analysis.
In the past, satellites have not been able to provide high-quality images that show defense and intelligence analysts enough detail for in-depth aerial analysis. But the Ikonos satellite - designed to produce images of Earth from 400 miles in space and moving at a speed of 4.5 miles per second - can take pictures of objects on Earth's surface as small as 1 meter. The satellite also carries a 4-meter resolution sensor, which will enable the first 1-meter color imagery to be produced using a proprietary production capability (see story, Page 37).
NIMA, which was formed in 1996 through the consolidation of the Defense Mapping Agency, Central Imagery Office and the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), plans to integrate the new commercial images into its future products and its imagery analysis operations, according to a spokesman. NIMA provides geographic data and aerial and satellite imagery to military mission planners, the U.S. intelligence community and national policy-makers.
Through a contract with Earthwatch Inc., NIMA uses a limited amount of 1-meter imagery produced by the Russian KVR-1000 satellite. Still, the availability of commercial imagery "is profoundly positive for NIMA," the spokesman said. "One-meter imagery is particularly useful as it meets the stringent requirements for imagery used in the production of NIMA's geospatial products."
However, the spokesman said, the most significant drawback of using commercial sources is delivery time. NIMA is working with vendors to create electronic data links capable of delivering images within 24 hours, the spokesman said.
Defense and intelligence experts question how the agency can justify its existence, because advancing technologies make it possible for defense and intelligence agencies to obtain imagery and mapping products faster and at a smaller cost from commercial sources.
"If I were them, I'd be very afraid of this," said Mark Lowenthal, former deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence.
Lowenthal said NIMA's role as middleman will be too time-consuming to support its customers in the Defense Department. "You're going to have agencies trying to purchase imagery on their own," he said. "[NIMA] is going to be out-competed at a certain point."
NIMA has come under fire several times during its three- year existence, including by the Defense Science Board and members of Congress, who questioned the agency's effectiveness. "My impression has been that the [lack of esteem] in which NIMA is held has more to do with bureaucratic politics than with practical concerns," said Allen Thomson, a former CIA analyst.
"But I can certainly see a [breakup] of NIMA back into its component parts as a possibility in the next two or three years," he said.
John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, disagrees, calling commercial imagery a natural extension of NIMA's support structure. "NIMA was basically created to exploit precisely this product, and this product was designed with NIMA in mind," said Pike, adding that such an arrangement is "easier said than done."
However, although NIMA remains the DOD's point agency for imagery and mapping support, it is moving too slowly in developing an architecture for exploiting commercial imagery, Pike said.
"NIMA's problems...are that they get free national imagery from [the National Reconnaissance Office], which costs them less than the commercial product, and the old NPIC side of NIMA is comfortable with that traditional arrangement, as is the DMA side of NIMA," he said. "NIMA has been too slow to embrace and extend commercial imagery, but they are moving in the right direction."