Analysis: China, Europe pulling ahead of U.S. in commercial satellite imaging

Current U.S. policies make agencies reluctant to buy what American commercial companies offer

U.S. satellite imaging capabilities historically have been the best in the world. Today, they are not just losing ground but they are officially behind those of other nations. 

This bombshell is ricocheting around Washington following an internal analysis by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and was recently confirmed by the agency’s director Vice Adm. Robert Sharp.

DoD and the intelligence community rely on NGA for critical data. NGA analysts are the professionals who did the tedious, decade-long intelligence work that tracked down Osama Bin Laden. They also recently analyzed the satellite imaging capabilities of the world’s most advanced nations.

In a slide presentation briefed at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing, NGA analysts awarded nations gold, silver and bronze medals. The U.S. medal count, despite winning a few golds in image resolution, was woefully behind China. 

What exactly are we behind on? We’re behind China in video and persistence in both visible and radar imaging. We don’t even get a medal in hyperspectral imaging, whereas China took home the gold and the bronze. The U.S. is even behind Finland, who takes the gold in radar, and tied for bronze with two other countries.

I caught up with Sharp to get his insights on this. He noted that it is NGA’s responsibility to study the commercial capabilities of other nations. He describes the China-U.S. match-up as “neck and neck.” But his team’s analysis paints a scarier picture. “Looking to the future, the U.S. can sweep the competition if we allow U.S. companies to pursue technological innovations, operate with their best capability, and smartly leverage our nation’s strong international partnerships – government and commercial,” says Sharp.

So why are we falling behind? “Bad policy,” says Dave Gauthier, NGA’s director of commercial and business operations. He offers the example of radar. “The problem is that our government turned its back on leveraging this nascent technology over 10 years ago. Meanwhile, other governments did the opposite — and now we are losing to them and falling even further behind.” 

Export control restrictions were a big issue back then, but today’s policies make agencies reluctant to buy what American commercial companies currently offer. Not only does this make it doubly difficult for these companies to raise capital and expand operations, but it also gives a leg up to foreign competitors.

I also spoke with Payam Banazadeh, the founder and CEO of California-based Capella Space, a U.S. commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging company and the reason the U.S. even gets one gold medal. He says the best thing the U.S. government can do is “to be a good customer of U.S. commercial SAR with a very clear bias towards domestically designed, built, operated, funded and managed capabilities.” In other words, move quickly to become a reliable customer of commercial products or lose the industry to an international market.

Roy Blunt (R), the senior U.S. senator from Missouri who has seen NGA’s analysis, was true to his surname. “Not only is [commercial first] the smart way to spend our resources, it also keeps the U.S. industrial base competitive and growing,” he says. “Countries we compete with are very aware of this strategic competition. We should understand the danger of falling behind.”  

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was straightforward about China’s medal count, “It’s unacceptable that our capabilities are falling behind as Beijing forces its way into countries across Africa and South America. We must do more to expand the commercial contribution to national security and sustain the U.S. as the global leader.”

A reversal of policy that prioritizes modern commercial products and services first will ensure that America has a robust and capable industry. 

Pivoting from government led product development to a privatized U.S. space economy will ensure we can win the global space race.

We cannot lose this space race the same way we lost the drone market to the Chinese and the radar market to Europe 10 years ago. A government policy of “commercial first” will ensure America’s advantage in peaceful competition and the decisive advantage when the next war comes. 

NGA’s analysis of satellite imaging capabilities must not be swept under the bureaucratic rug like so many before it. 

Our current policy of “wait and see” means we will stand by and watch the U.S. lose more critical pieces of space infrastructure, bit by bit and medal by medal. 

Charles Beames is chairman of the SmallSat Alliance, an industry association. 

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