A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlights the federal use of commercial imagery provided through the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Geospatial Agency (NGA) by eight of 10 departments/agencies examined by GAO.
“Eight of 10 departments and agencies reported that they use commercial satellite imagery acquired by the [NRO] and the [NGA] through their participation in the National System for Geospatial Intelligence or through their access to commercial imagery in NGA’s Global-GEOINT Enhanced Delivery, a web-hosted service,” said the new report, National Security Space: Overview of Contracts for Commercial Satellite Imagery (GAO-23-106042).
The 10 civil departments and agencies in the new study are the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Commerce, State, Interior, Justice, Agriculture, Transportation, Treasury, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Planet Labs PBC [PL] was a contractor for all five of the civil departments/agencies that reported commercial imagery contracts this year to GAO, while Maxar Technologies Inc. [MAXR] was a contractor for three of the five, GAO said in the new report.
The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories told GAO that they have commercial imagery contracts with Planet, BlackSky Technology Inc. [BKSY], and the Finland-based ICEYE.
GAO said that a separate classified study details the use of commercial imagery by the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.
In a September report, GAO said that the intelligence community and DoD have made limited use of emerging commercial satellite imaging capabilities such as radar but have been slow to make sustained use of these technologies (Defense Daily, Sept. 7).
The government audit agency also warned 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,” said the September 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 said, the U.S. could fall behind competitors such as China and U.S. industry could also suffer competitively with its foreign competitors.
The NRO, 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 said. Agency officials told 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 said.