NIMA ups commercial satellite imagery

Fiscal 2003 represents the first time that the National Imagery and Mapping Agency is getting "serious money" for purchasing commercial satellite imagery, according to the agency's leader.

Speaking Jan. 29 at AFCEA International's NIMA Industry Day in Washington, D.C., retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, NIMA's director, said the agency received a "multiple-fold increase" in funding for commercial satellite imagery purchases this year compared to fiscal 2002 levels.

Mike Rodrigue, director of NIMA's production support office, said the agency spent $96 million in that area in fiscal 2002 and is looking at a potential 10 percent increase this year. In commercial imagery support, NIMA spent $35 million last year and is anticipating as much as a 300 percent increase in the current fiscal year, he said.

Just last week, NIMA awarded DigitalGlobe Inc., Longmont, Colo., a $72 million award, and Space Imaging Inc., Thornton, Colo., a $120 million deal. Dan Hinchberger, a contracting officer at NIMA, said each deal's initial amount is the minimum guarantee over three years, but each contract has a ceiling of $500 million over five years.

The contracts, collectively known as Clearview, require commercial data providers to deliver high-resolution satellite imagery to NIMA. The Defense Department announced the contracts Jan. 16 and NIMA signed them the following day, according to an agency spokeswoman.

Clapper said if NIMA can't get what it needs from a domestic provider, the agency will use foreign satellite imagery providers, who are "getting better all the time." But he said the agency would prefer that restrictions be lifted on U.S. commercial providers to ensure that they are the best in the world.

NIMA prefers not to build its own imagery when most of what it needs is available from commercial vendors. The latter usually is of a higher quality and built on open standards, and is therefore easier to work with to meet the needs of DOD, intelligence and other customers, according to NIMA officials.

The agency's increasing reliance on commercial imagery should not come as a surprise because fiscal 2003 also represents the first year that contractors outnumber government employees at NIMA. Clapper spearheaded that movement since assuming leadership of the agency in the summer of 2001, and he said it is a trend that will continue as NIMA receives more funding.

When asked if analytical work, including imagery analysis, also would be outsourced, Clapper said it already is. He added that as the average age of NIMA analysts has decreased, the agency has begun hiring back former employees to mentor younger colleagues.

Seven months ago, NIMA's analysis and production directorate did not have any contractor imagery analysts, but today it employs 26, said Thomas Coghlan, the office's director. He added that the agency will be losing about 300 cartographers this year, but will be hiring about 250 imagery analysts in conjunction with the evolution of skill sets at the agency.

NIMA also has 37 employees deployed "in-theater" in preparations for a conflict in Iraq, and many of those people are contractors, Coghlan said.

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