Vice Adm. Murrett: U.S. Systems Can Detect Enemy Tunnels, Spot Individuals As They Walk

U.S. intelligence efforts are using huge amounts of civilian space imaging capabilities, and that will continue, Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said.

Murrett sees a two-way benefit here: not only is the intel community gaining the benefit of advanced new commercial space imaging assets, but as well the industry is receiving tremendous support from the government. He spoke to defense journalists at a breakfast of the Defense Writers Group at a hotel in Washington.

He said government/military use of commercial imaging will only grow, with new space imaging satellites going into orbit. “Never underestimate the role of the commercial sector” in intelligence gathering, he said.

Murrett specifically cited the World-View-1 bird operated by DigitalGlobe Inc. that was launched last year, and the GeoEye-1 satellite operated by GeoEye Inc. [GEOY] that launched recently. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Sept. 8, 2008.)

He also indicated he is looking forward to the launch of the DigitalGlobe WorldView-2 satellite. It will orbit about 500 miles up, providing pictures from space with high resolution, for both commercial and government markets.

Murrett said these commercial space assets have come to constitute a major portion of intel space imaging data.

“Under our next-view contracts with both Digital Globe and GeoEye, and with the successful launches of the GeoEye-1 platform and WorldView-1 this year, and also with WorldView- 2 coming up on the horizon, we are the single strongest supporter of the commercial remote sensing industry,” Murrett said.

Commercial platforms provide a hugely significant portion of U.S. space imaging intel capabilities, he said, and that is permanent.

Commercial space intel capability “is absolutely integral to our success, and it is a fundamental building block of what we do as an agency,” Murrett said. “And the dollar amounts that we have invested in the commercial remote sensing industry are absolutely overwhelming. And that will continue to be the case.”

Indeed, he said, the intelligence community has built in an expectation of using increasing amounts of commercial data, as a basic component of U.S. intel-gathering functions.

“So the point that people need to not lose sight of is what a huge chunk of our mission capability is comprised by the commercial remote sensing industry, and how we have programmed for, and have that embedded in our architecture in ways that are irreversible for many, many years into the future,” he said.

No one should worry that government support for the commercial sector will wane, he added. “People need to have less anxiety about our interaction with the commercial sector. It is overwhelming,” he explained.

The government has set an appropriate goal as to how much it should depend on commercial providers, and how much it must still be able to have intel coming from government platforms, in the totality of intelligence capabilities, Murrett said.

“In any discipline, there’s going to be a government-commercial interface, and government officials are responsible for drawing the line, and where that is going to exist, based on national security requirements and other considerations,” he said. “And we have done that. And the direction that I have received from both the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence on where that line ought to be has been very consistent, and one that I’ve been comfortable with executing.”

As a sign that government can continue to depend on the commercial sector for intelligence data, Murrett said that since its recent launch, GeoEye-1 has performed well.

While he indicated that the intelligence community tends not to rely on commercial sources for highly time-critical information about breaking developments, he added that in some instances, the government has obtained highly useful time-critical information from private companies, such as pictures of the new Chinese Jin Class submarine moored at a pier. They showed up on Google Earth.

“Google is one of our best industry partners,” he said. “We welcome the technological advances by Google and others.”

On other points, Murrett said the United States has technologies such as radar able to detect enemy tunnels even though they are underground, not visible to cameras in space. Tunnels can be detected by sensing minute differences in gravity in a given area. Intel platforms also can penetrate clouds, he said.

Hyperspectral, video, radar, lidar (lasers), infrared and other technologies are increasing intel capabilities, he indicated.

He was asked by Space & Missile Defense Report whether advancing Chinese capabilities in destroying or disabling satellites causes him concern, and whether the United States is able to defend its space assets against attack, or at least can replace any lost assets with new satellites quickly.

The key here, he said, is mission assurance, the ability to ensure that needed intel continues to be gathered and disseminated to U.S. and allied forces, rather than focusing on whether a space platform provides that data.

He referred to other, non-space assets that can gather intel, such as UAVs, and means of disseminating intel such as land lines.

“I am comfortable with where the nation is going” in this area, he said.