The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) had said that companies provide NGA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) 50,000 electro-optical (EO) commercial images weekly.
NGA is now further delineating that figure. The 50,000 EO commercial images provided weekly through the NRO Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) program are raw files/raw data, and of that number 10,000 are “operationally relevant” images that NGA analysts use.
In May last year, NRO awarded EOCL contracts that the agency said it values at $4 billion over the next decade to BlackSky Technology [BKSY], Maxar Technologies, and Planet Labs PBC [PL] (Defense Daily, May 22).
Defense Daily has not obtained a percentage breakdown between the commercial imagery and National Technical Means (NTM) imagery used by NRO or NGA.
The NGA said that 90 percent of its “foundational data,” such as baseline maps used for navigation and maritime safety, comes from commercial companies and that commercial imagery is increasingly used for “tipping and cueing” NTM satellites with higher resolution cameras to take a closer look.
Former NGA Director Robert Cardillo told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Sept. 27, 2016 that the “diverse phenomenology and rapid delivery timelines” of the agency’s commercial imagery program, Enhanced View (EV), support “everything from map-making, to disaster relief, to intelligence requirements.”
“In fact, it [EV] supports over 90 percent of our foundation mapping efforts,” according to his statement for the record. “Its unclassified nature makes commercial imagery a mainstay for U.S. and allied customers in virtually every mission worldwide, from peace-keeping to combat support to disaster relief.”
In November, 2021, Pete Muend, the NRO’s commercial systems program director, said that NRO was procuring about 50,000 commercial images weekly and that he expected to see a significant increase in that number (Defense Daily, Nov. 3, 2021). NRO Director Christopher Scolese told the Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Symposium in St. Louis a month earlier that commercial contracts “are providing about 100 million square kilometers of commercial imagery every single week.”
In a speech to the GEOINT symposium in May this year, NGA Director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth quoted a figure of more than 50,000 EO commercial images per week, but in a Nov. 1 interview at NGA’s headquarters in Springfield, Va., Whitworth said that commercial companies provide the NRO and the NGO with a total of 10,000 such images per week.
After the interview, NGA provided the clarification on the 10,000 figure–namely, that the 10,000 referred to “operationally relevant” images.
A photo caption to an article by National Public Radio in March, 2020 suggested that NGA was receiving more than one million images from all sources per day.
“We are making every effort to incorporate commercial imagery–mainly because it’s the right thing to do–at every turn,” Whitworth said in the Nov. 1 interview. “I have a saying: ‘I just want it all.’ When it comes to collection, it’s good for America, if we just get it all, provided it’s within the ethical and legal boundaries that we’ve been given. To give you an idea, the EOCL contract delivers to us 10,000 commercial images per week between NGA and NRO. We have operational access to 230-plus commercial imaging satellites that include over 50 taskable imagers and 180 Planet Doves.”
The latter are 10x10x30 centimeter nanosatellites by Planet Labs that deliver three meter resolution multispectral imagery.
“We have over 20 commercial analytic services on contract,” Whitworth said. “This is something that’s very important to Congress. We take that seriously, as they’re our board of directors. I want to make them happy, and I want to do the right thing also because I want good analysis. As an example, we get more than 4,000 automated detections per day from one of those commercial services.”
“As to the percentage of the overall [split of DoD-used imagery between National Technical Means imagery and commercial imagery], I don’t have that,” Whitworth said. “Frankly, the numbers are too big. I’m not going to tell you that it [commercial imagery] is the majority, but it’s significant. It’s all interwoven with the importance of [NGA] being the collection orchestrator because if the request comes in, and we don’t have something from an NTM [National Technical Means] perspective that’s available, if you’re willing and aware and able to drive the commercial availability, you can still answer the mail without sacrificing an NTM asset that might be on a different task.”