The intelligence community and Department of Defense have made limited use of emerging commercial satellite imaging capabilities such as radar but have been slow to make sustained use of these technologies, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says in a report.

The government audit agency also warns that the roles and responsibilities for acquiring commercial satellite imagery and data are unclear and are not bounded in laws or regulations, leading to potential duplication effort.

“The IC and DOD have established requirements for future commercial acquisitions focused primarily on foundational intelligence but have limited ability to incorporate emerging commercial satellite capabilities in a timely manner,” says the report, National Security Space: Actions Needed to Better Use Commercial Satellite Imagery and Analytics (GAO-22-106106). “Although they have explored utilizing emerging capabilities, the IC and DOD have not developed an effective approach to bring these capabilities into geospatial-intelligence (GEOINT) operations.”

As a result, the report says, the U.S. could fall behind competitors such as China and U.S. industry could also suffer competitively with its foreign competitors.

The National Reconnaissance Office, which was designated in 2017 as the primary acquirer of commercial satellite imagery for the IC and DoD, has purchased emerging imagery capabilities but for the most part hasn’t transitioned these study contracts into sustained funding, GAO says. Agency officials tell GAO that the Broad Agency Announcement mechanisms to fund these contracts can be scalable to meet operational needs but the auditors caution that such contracts by regulation are focused on research and not long-term procurement.

While NRO is the lead agency for acquiring commercial satellite imagery, GAO says there are no laws or regulations guiding this and that DoD entities such as the Defense Innovation Unit, the Army, and U.S. Southern Command are acquiring this this imagery on their own.

Roles and responsibilities for acquiring commercial imagery are likely to be further strained going forward given the increased reliance by DoD on space, the further expansion of the commercial remote sensing industry and capabilities, and the potential for the new U.S. Space Force to begin acquiring such imagery, GAO says.

“However, the IC and DOD have not ensured the establishment of clear roles and responsibilities for the acquisition of commercial satellite imagery and have not communicated such guidance to all relevant stakeholders,” the report says.