GeoEye Vice President Outlines Imagery Sector’s Leading Role in Afghanistan
[Satellite News 12-01-09] As U.S. President Barack Obama announces his strategy to increase U.S. military presence in Afghanistan while focusing on optimized battlefield intelligence networks, the commercial satellite imagery sector, which has played a crucial roll in U.S. and allied operations so far, will see an even larger role in providing the military with valuable, unclassified overhead imagery.
GeoEye Vice President Mark Brender and his company have a long history in providing the U.S. military and its allies with imagery of Afghanistan. In 2009, GeoEye’s single largest customer, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), upgraded its business relationship with GeoEye to a service-level agreement, which Brender considers as a milestone for the company. “The service-level agreement is good for NGA because they can rely on a predictable and constant supply of imagery and it is good for us because we can count on a predictable revenue stream,” said Brender.
In an interview with Satellite News, Brender discussed the history behind military-commercial imagery partnerships in Afghanistan, and emphasized that despite what the public sees in Hollywood movies, the military’s mapping intelligence for fighting terrorism was not always state-of-the-art.
Satellite News: How is GeoEye currently equipped to provide its services and what role does GeoEye-1 play in your current network?
Bender: We commissioned GeoEye-1 in February of 2009 and it is the world’s highest resolution commercial Earth imaging satellite. From a 423-mile high orbit, the satellite is able to look down on Earth and see objects the size of home plate on a baseball diamond. It’s best ground resolution is .41 of a meter, or about 16 inches. The satellite can also map an image that size to within about 11 feet of its true location on the surface of the globe. We are also a major provider of imagery to Google and the U.S. Military through our service-level agreement with the NGA.
Satellite News: We’ve been in Afghanistan for over eight years now. In that time, how has the military’s battlefield imagery intelligence developed?
Brender: When U.S. forces were first deployed to Afghanistan in the October after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the military’s initial mapping intelligence consisted of physical Russian maps from the 1980s. They did not have a broad-scale overhead mapping asset. They immediately tasked both the national system and GeoEye over a period of three months to collect imagery over Afghanistan. But, that didn’t help the first troops entering Afghanistan. It seems strange to say, but you have to ask – Why would the U.S. have up-to-date maps of Afghanistan prior to 9/11? Now, the U.S. Department of Defense recognizes that the war on terror could come at us from any angle.
Now, our defense and intelligence community has a tremendous appetite for unclassified, high-resolution, map-accurate satellite imagery because it can easily be shared with allies and coalition partners. It can easily be used in disaster preparedness and disaster relief and in mission planning and contingency operations. Whereas imagery from intelligence satellites is highly classified and difficult to share with allies and coalition partners because of its security.
Satellite News: Fast-forward to 2009, what unclassified commercial imagery applications do the military need most?
Brender: The U.S. military and its allies mostly use commercially provided satellite imagery to keep its mapping databases up to date. The use our digital smart maps to cover areas of the world. This covers a wide range of uses and applications. 3D visual representation for pilots of airports and the environment in which they exist, for example, assists pilots in mission planning. Military commanders have access to a wide range of overhead collection from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with cameras that beam back virtual real-time images and provide persistent intelligence.
Satellite News: How accessible is this intelligence in an environment, such as Afghanistan, that relies on mobile connectivity?
Brender: The digital smart map is accessible via the Web to forward-deployed units in that part of the world. It is especially important to have easily and readily available intelligence for today’s military. Young people in the military today expect to have access to high-resolution imagery because they’ve grown up in a Google Earth environment. Almost everyone who has had a cell phone or has had any multimedia device can acquire and operate mapping intelligence. The applications are literally ingrained into our culture.
Satellite News: Do you mean that any military unit with a laptop and a Web connection has access to the unclassified imagery?
Brender: It is not quite that Hollywood yet. The perceptions of the capabilities of overhead imaging systems have been heavily influenced by Hollywood. The very first mention of the term ‘Spy Satellite’ was in the 1968 Gregory Peck movie, Ice Station Zebra. Ever since then, Hollywood has had a love affair and has increasingly exaggerated the use and capability of overhead imaging systems. In reality, a sergeant in the field with a Web browser is not yet able to go back and look through imagery time of a particular area of interest. But, it is moving in that direction.
Satellite News: How do you keep the imagery intelligence secure and within the hands of U.S. military and allied forces?
Brender: There are many levers for our government to regulate our industry. Under the terms of our operating license, there is a provision that if there is a threat to national security or a foreign policy concern, then the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce, can impose a so-called ‘shutter control’ over our imaging systems, which basically shuts it down. However, to this day, they have yet to impose shutter control or interrupt commercial service. That’s a real testament to our governments understanding of transparency.