Crowding in on the High Ground

April 1, 1997

For decades, satellite photography of Earth was the product of multibillion-dollar intelligence systems conceived, built, and operated by the superpowers. Beginning with the Corona program in the 1960s, the US closely followed Russian strategic forces, particularly ICBM deployments. Russia’s intelligence “birds” did much the same thing in the relentless, silent war that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With the end of the Cold War has come a new development: commercialization of spy-satellite technology. Today, satellite imagery is no longer the exclusive domain of two superpowers. France, Canada, Japan, India, and the European Union also operate civil or commercial remote-sensing systems capable of taking low- or medium-resolution photographs and making them available on the international market.

Within the next several years, even more capable nonmilitary satellites will go online, and the nations and companies that operate them will open up shop to market space pictures.

The Department of Commerce estimates that by 2000, the growing remote-sensing industry-satellite producers, ground stations, imagery sellers, and other components-will be a market worth more than $2.65 billion. Other analysts think the value of the market in 2000 could be as high as $5 billion.

Many of the new satellites will be capable of producing images having a resolution of one meter or less, meaning ground objects of about three feet in diameter will be recognizable in the photographic take. New commercial imagery also will be available in a matter of days, not the weeks or months that it takes to fill customer orders today.

Thirty More

US intelligence officials say that, by 2000, the new purveyors of high-quality, high-resolution satellite capabilities available for domestic use or for sale to others will include Israel, Pakistan, China, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Germany, Ukraine, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. In all, the US expects that as many as 30 nations will have indigenous remote-sensing industries, according to a report last year by the consulting group KPMG Peat Marwick, “The Satellite Remote Sensing Industry: A Global Review.”

The proliferation of high-resolution imagery around the world is under way and has many positive commercial applications, from assisting in natural disaster relief to helping farmers plant crops, but access to close-up pictures is a dual-use technology with extremely valuable military applications. Wider distribution of this technology brings with it potential threats that trouble the Pentagon.

Robert V. Davis, deputy under secretary of defense for Space, watches the trend very closely. “Iridium, Globalstar, ICO, Spaceway, Teledesic-the list is becoming endless,” he said. “In 10 years, in the commercial market, you’ll be able to buy direct broadcast, worldwide point-to-point handheld communications, private [Very Small Aperture Terminal] networks, spaceborne wide-area computer nets, and process switched bandwidth capacity at nearly [extremely high] frequencies-all from the privacy of your own home or from the local terrorist training camp.”

Mr. Davis went on, “Imagine a scenario of any individual in a remote corner of the world being able to order and download a GPS [Global Positioning System] benchmark image of any target in near­real time from any computer hooked into the global information infrastructure via direct satellite connections. What if that individual also has access to a GPS-guided weapon, say a Cessna with GPS-loaded autopilot with conventional weapons? What could he do, and what should we be doing to counter that? I guarantee in the near future this threat will emerge.”

Mr. Davis also noted that Pentagon support for the US commercial space launch program is “a real success story.”

“Through time, the Department of Defense, particularly the Air Force, has acted as an excellent steward, maintaining America’s ability to access space-not just for national security missions but for civil and commercial activities as well,” Mr. Davis told the House Science Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee in June.

The value of satellite imagery is obvious: It is essential for providing accurate targeting for missiles, whether ballistic or cruise. It also provides bomber pilots with advance views of routes and details of individual targets. Bomb and missile damage could also be assessed with satellite pictures.

A rogue state like Libya, or even a state-backed terrorist group like Islamic Jihad, might be able to acquire detailed satellite photographs of US Central Command’s bases in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain and use the data, along with information from GPS satellites, to program the bases’ exact coordinates into the guidance system of a cruise missile obtained from Iran or China.

A Certainty

“That’s going to happen,” predicts one government contractor involved in remote sensing. “Anything that is fixed can be targeted.”

Terrorist groups could acquire high-resolution imagery to gain information for planning attacks on routes used by assassination targets or to learn vulnerable points to plant explosives for maximum damage or casualties. Additionally, weather-related imagery could assist terrorists in planning deadly biological weapons or poison-gas attacks.

Imagery could also provide foreign governments or corporations with a valuable tool for economic espionage operations. Corporate competitors might find high-resolution photographs of a foreign competitor’s manufacturing facilities useful.

The Pentagon is looking at how the emergence of space-capable adversaries will affect warfighting doctrine.

“While we are developing an effective spacepower strategy, the capabilities and the systems that support our strategy are coming into the hands of not just our global peers but the rest of the world as well,” Mr. Davis said. “How do we truly integrate space into our warfighting doctrine and terrestrial operations, and how do we prepare for the time in the not-too-distant future when we face adversaries that use space nearly as well as we do?”

DoD officials said that one of the several US companies entering the commercial remote-sensing industry already has been contacted by several foreign governments seeking to purchase future satellite imagery.

Mr. Davis is careful to note that he does not see “the sky falling” because of commercial remote sensing but added that DoD officials must look at worst-case scenarios for the misuse of commercial satellite imagery. “We get paid on a day-to-day basis to think through worst-case scenarios so we can develop countermeasures,” he noted.

A major worry is that satellite imagery will be combined with GPS capability to develop precision guided munitions.

“If you take remote sensing, where you have specific information on specific places that is becoming more and more readily available, the potential for that information to be not just in picture format but in digitized, three-dimensional data, and you tie that to GPS, we need to pay particular attention to the threat down the road to what may be the poor man’s cruise missile,” Mr. Davis said.

The widespread proliferation of high-resolution satellite imagery could be used by nations, criminal and terrorist groups, or even foreign economic spies who can exploit the technology for nefarious aims.

“Clearly to the extent that any party, whether it’s a sovereign nation or a terrorist or a commercial firm, can see pictures of something they otherwise would not see, that information can be put to good purposes or bad purposes,” Mr. Davis said.

Two Types

Earth-imaging satellites today fall into two general categories. The first type produces its images with electro-optical cameras-machines similar to television cameras that transmit digital images to Earth. These systems produce images from visible light or “multispectral” images-those derived from unseen light, such as infrared or ultraviolet, that are useful commercially for scientific research or environmental monitoring.

The second type of satellite uses synthetic aperture radar, a system that sends beams to Earth and then creates high-resolution images from the reflections. These satellites have the advantage of being able to see through clouds, but their images are not as sharp.

By 1994, France, Russia, Israel, Brazil, China, India, and Japan had begun developing high-resolution remote-sensing satellites with commercial applications. The competition prompted the Clinton Administration to loosen its policy on the commercial use of satellite imagery. In a directive, the President allowed private companies to sell images of up to one-meter resolution.

To protect US forces and military operations in wartime or other national emergencies, government licenses require companies that market the images to permit the government to maintain “shutter control” and would cut off the flow of space imagery in national emergencies.

The White House announced that the new policy would “promote and not preclude private-sector commercial opportunities in Landsat-type remote sensing.” Landsat pictures were used to produce the computer-generated graphic simulations used by Air Force pilots to plan missions into Haiti in 1994.

The easing of restrictions on commercial remote sensing also was prompted by the military’s growing use of commercial imagery for its tactical operations. The Air Force, according to Defense Department officials, is the biggest customer for France’s five-meter-resolution SPOT satellite imagery. SPOT imagery was used by the military during Operation Desert Storm to lay out air and missile raids on downtown Baghdad.

Today, the Air Force’s Eagle Vision program uses small portable ground stations to convert SPOT imagery into tactical intelligence for field units. The program grew out of problems encountered in getting highly classified satellite photographs to military commanders during Desert Storm.

“Nobody has a purely commercial satellite in orbit yet,” says Larry W. Janski, chief of Peat Marwick’s Space and High Technology office. “People selling commercial imagery are using data coming off of spinoffs from government systems.”

Landsat 4 and 5 are two current civilian US satellites in orbit. Landsats have provided 30-meter-resolution images since 1972. A Landsat 6 satellite failed to reach orbit in October 1993, and the 15-meter-resolution Landsat 7 is not scheduled for launch until next year.

By contrast, France’s SPOT 1, 2, and 3 satellites now in orbit can provide 10-meter-resolution images in two to three weeks’ time. Russia currently operates a single, one-meter-resolution imagery satellite known as IMSAT that, while primarily a military system, sells pictures degraded to two-meter resolution on the commercial market.

Other countries also have commercial or civil remote-sensing satellites in orbit:

Canada’s Radarsat, a synthetic aperture radar system that can provide eight-meter-resolution pictures to customers in five to 10 days.

Japan’s ADEOS satellite (eight-meter resolution) and JERS-1 satellite (18-meter resolution), both of which can make images available in two to three weeks.

India’s IRS-1A, -1B, and -1C satellites, which can provide 5.8-meter-resolution images in two to three weeks, and the IRS-P2 satellite, which can provide 36-meter-resolution images in three weeks.

The European Union’s ERS-1 and -2 satellites, synthetic aperture radar systems, which can supply 30-meter-resolution images in two to three weeks.

US Commercial Remote-Sensing Firms

The United States is expected to emerge as the world leader in the commercial field within the next several years, according to US officials. Currently, several US companies or consortiums are working on high-resolution commercial remote-sensing systems. Three are considered serious players in the emerging commercial remote-sensing industry.

One venture is Space Imaging EOSAT, a company formed by Lockheed Martin together with other contractors, including E-Systems, Inc., with years of experience in building and operating satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office. The first Space Imaging satellite will have the highest resolution of any new US commercial remote-sensing satellite, according to US officials. The system also will have imagery available within one day of order and is scheduled for launch from Vandenburg AFB, Calif., in December 1997 (aboard a Lockheed Martin booster).

Space Imaging is already emerging as an industry powerhouse. It acquired the EOSAT Co. in November. EOSAT operates Landsat 4 and 5. The company also has the only license to sell images from India’s satellites.

The first commercial, remote-imaging satellite expected to reach orbit is EarlyBird-1, the product of EarthWatch, Inc., a consortium of WorldView Imaging Corp., Ball Aerospace and Communications Group, and other partners, including the Japanese company Hitachi, Ltd. WorldView was formed by a group of engineers who were part of the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research program and is taking the lead in the EarlyBird-1 program.

According to US officials, the EarlyBird-1 will produce three-meter-resolution photographs in two to three days of order and multispectral images with a 15-meter resolution. EarlyBird-1 will produce pictures equal in quality to those of the first Corona reconnaissance satellites.

Launch schedules for 1996 slipped, and current plans call for EarlyBird-1 to be launched this spring aboard a converted Russian ICBM known as Start-1. A second EarthWatch satellite, QuickBird, is also planned. QuickBird, adapted from SDI’s small satellite design, will produce sharper than one-meter-resolution images in two to three days, and it could be launched sometime this year. EarthWatch plans a constellation of four satellites, and its strategy is to provide low-cost satellites and images.

Orbimage, a subsidiary of the Orbital Sciences Corp., is developing OrbView-2, also known as SeaStar. A multispectral imager, SeaStar will provide 1.1-kilometer-resolution pictures for maritime uses, such as environmental monitoring, ocean fishing, and cloud imaging. Fishing fleets could follow plankton masses from space. Landbased applications include use in agriculture and forestry management. US officials said both OrbView and SeaStar could be in orbit this year, but industry analysts say it will take longer. Orbimage is also developing a small satellite it calls OrbView-3, to provide one- and two-meter-resolution images on the commercial market within two or three days of customers’ orders.

Other US commercial satellite systems in development include Boeing’s 10-meter-resolution multispectral imaging satellite known as the Global Monitoring System, which could be available in 1999, GDE Systems satellite, which will produce images with a less-than-one-meter resolution by 1998, and AstroVision’s AVSat, which will produce multispectral one-kilometer-resolution images for geophysical and meteorological purposes by 1998.

Foreign nations also are developing commercial remote-sensing satellites. France plans to launch SPOT 4, which is completed, in October 1997. SPOT 5 is being developed for launch in 2001. SPOT 4 will have a 10-meter resolution, and SPOT 5’s highest resolution will be five meters, according to US officials.

India is working on two new satellites known as IRS-1D and IRS-2. The IRS-1D will provide less than six-meter resolution and could be in operation this year. The IRS-2 will carry both an electro-optical camera capable of producing images with a resolution of less than five meters and synthetic aperture radar. The system could be in operation by 2000.

China and Brazil also are expected to field a multispectral commercial imaging satellite known as CBERS that could be launched by October. The system will produce 19-meter-resolution images.

Japan is developing a satellite known as ALOS that will produce multispectral and synthetic aperture radar images. The multispectral images are expected to have an image resolution of 2.5 meters and will be available by 2000. Another Japanese commercial remote-sensing system under development is a joint Mitsubishi­Lockheed Martin satellite that will produce one-meter-resolution images. That system could be launched this year.

Israel Aircraft Industries and Core Software Technologies, of California, are collaborating in a joint venture to produce the EROS satellite that could be launched this year. The EROS will have a one-meter resolution and will provide images to customers within two to three days.

Public use of high-resolution imagery is expected to have a profound impact on international politics, as governments no longer will be able to control spy photography obtained from space.

Proponents of the open-skies use of space photographs say rumors of massacres in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which were eventually confirmed by military imagery from both aircraft and satellites, could have been investigated sooner by news organizations if they had had access to the photographs. Instead, the massacres were confirmed when pictures showed a stadium in Bosnia filled with prisoners one day and an empty arena a few days later with what appeared to be newly covered mass graves nearby.

In addition to news gathering, commercial satellite imagery will have a number of other applications. In agriculture, for example, imagery can help monitor crop yield and soil and the impact of pests and disease during growing seasons.

There is even the potential for use in law enforcement. High-resolution images could help identify evidence for use in a trial. As one official remarked, referring to the O. J. Simpson murder trial, “You’d be able to see if there was a white Bronco, but you couldn’t see someone throwing a bloody glove.”

Figure 1: Today’s Civil/Commercial Sensors

Country System Sensor Status Resolution (meters)
US Landsat 4 EO, MS OP 30
US Landsat 5 EO, MS OP 30
France SPOT 1, 2, 3 EO, PC OP 10
France SPOT 1, 2, 3 EO, MS OP 20
Russia IMSAT EO, PC OP 1
Russia IMSAT EO, MS OP 10
Russia Photogeo-2 film A/IN 2
Russia ALMAZ SAR A/IN 15
Russia Resurs F1 EO, MS A/IN 170
Russia Resurs F2 EO, MS A/IN 170
Canada Radarsat SAR OP 8
Japan ADEOS EO, MS OP 16
Japan JERS-1 EO, MS OP 18
Japan JERS-1 SAR OP 18
India IRS-1A, -1B, -1C EO, PC OP 6
India IRS-P2, -P3 EO, MS OP 36
EU ERS-1, -2 SAR OP 30

A/IN=Archives or inoperative




OP=operational, in orbit


SAR=synthetic aperture radar

Figure 2: Planned Civil/Commercial Sensors

Country System Sensor Resolution (meters)
US Space Imaging PC 1
US Space Imaging MS 24
US EarthWatch EarlyBird PC 3
US EarthWatch EarlyBird MS 15
US EarthWatch QuickBird PC .82
US EarthWatch QuickBird MS 3.28
US Orbimage OrbView-3 PC 1 and 2
US Orbimage OrbView-3 MS 4
US Orbimage SeaStar MS 1,100
US Boeing Global Monitoring System MS 10
US GDE Systems PC .85
US AVSat MS 1,000
US Landsat 7 PC 15
France SPOT 4 PC 10
France SPOT 4 MS 20
France SPOT 5 PC 5
France SPOT 5 MS 10
Israel EROS PC 1
India IRS-1D PC <6
India IRS-1D MS 20
India IRS-2 PC <5
India IRS-2 SAR
Japan ALOS MS 2.5
Japan Mitsubishi-Lockheed PC 1
Japan Mitsubishi_Lockheed MS 4
China/Brazil CBERS MS 19

Fig. 3: Foreign Government/Military Systems With Commercial Potential

Country/Grouping System Sensor Resolution (meters)
France, Italy, Spain Helos-1A EO, PC 5-.8
France, Italy, Spain Helos-1B EO, PC <.5
France, Germany, Italy, Spain Helos-2 EO, PC <.5
Israel Ofek-3 EO, PC .7
Isreal Ofek-4 EO, PC .7
France, Germany Horus SAR 3-5
Russia Mir EO, PC 2
Russia Hires-2 film, PR .5
Russia Cosmos-2031 film, PC .7
Russia Medrews film, PC 1-2
China FSW1, 2, 3 film, PC 1
China Jianbing-1B EO, PC 13
Ukraine Sich-1 radar
South Korea Komsat PC 10
Germany, UAE Germany-EO EO, PC 1
Japan Hinomaru EO 3
Pakistan Pakistan-EO EO, PC 2-5

Some systems in this table are already in orbit. Most, however, are being developed or are awaiting launch.

Moscow’s Creeping Blindness

Russia’s eyes in space are going blind. In January, the Russian government announced that its military satellites, which monitor the world for nuclear missile launches, would soon be obsolete. Six of every 10 Russian spy satellites no longer operate fully-a side effect of Moscow’s severe economic problems that have decimated what was once a superpower military force.

In the US, by contrast, newer generations of secret high-resolution reconnaissance satellites are providing sharper images of more areas at lower cost. A top-of-the-line US spy satellite still costs about $1 billion to build and launch, but such satellites are designed to be smaller, operate longer, maneuver better, and combine both imagery-derived from photographs and radar-and signals intelligence systems that provide secret information to policymakers.

National security missions still include monitoring the 30,000 nuclear arms of the former Soviet Union and the nuclear weapons modernization under way in China, as well as nuclear tests planned in India.

Recent US successes captured on high-resolution images include the discovery of a surge in production at a Russian surface-to-air-missile plant, indicating Moscow’s intention to begin exporting high-performance SA-12 systems around the world. A spy satellite also spotted the presence in central China of a B-6 bomber modified into a refueling tanker, confirming Beijing’s plans to extend the range of its jet fighter-bombers throughout the region. Another photograph from space revealed how North Korea, despite severe economic problems, is upgrading long-range artillery units close to the demilitarized zone with South Korea. The photographs were sharp enough to show trucks mounted with rocket launchers parked at a base.

Reconnaissance satellites are being used to locate terrorist training camps, monitor drug trafficking production and flow, and help identify nations engaged in development programs for weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems.

Bill Gertz covers national security affairs and defense for the Washington Times. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Terrorism and the Force,” appeared in the February 1997 issue.