Lawmakers push IC for more commercial imagery acquisition, transparency


Satellite imagery taken by Maxar Technologies on Aug. 29, 2022 shows the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY SUMMIT — House lawmakers want to know more about how much the Intelligence Community is spending funds on commercial satellite imagery and imagery-derived analytical products, according to a senior House staffer.

Frank Garcia, a long-time Republican staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HIPSCI), on Thursday told the 2022 Intelligence and National Security Summit, cosponsored by INSA and AFCEA, that making National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s commercial operations budgets clearer would not just improve oversight but also help the commercial remote sensing industry.

“If you look at an acquisition program … I can tell you how much it’s gonna cost every year. When I look at commercial line, it’s still really hard to know. We’re trying to do some things to encourage the administration to lay that out, because that will help give some predictability,” he said, indicating lawmakers included such a push in the IC’s 2023 intelligence authorization act.

For one thing, Garcia explained it could help reassure venture capital providers that commercial firms have viable, and reliable, potential sources of income.

“When you go for VC rounds, you can start to say, ‘Here’s the total addressable market. And within the total addressable market, we think we can access this much of it.’ And that’s really powerful on the commercial side,” he said.

And there should be government money going to commercial acquisition because the demand certainly is there, Garcia said. He said that while the IC is absolutely “on board” with the need to expand acquisition of commercial products, the funding dedicated to doing so within annual agency budget requests in recent years have not been at the levels expected by HPSCI.

“The Hill has message very strongly to the administration that our members — as taxpayers, and as representatives — think that this is just really vital for us to continue to invest in. But yet when the budgets come in, we still see some level of underinvestment, which is kind of disappointing,” he said.

And the need for more funding is apparent, Garcia elaborated, by the fact that military commanders are not satisfied with the amount of imagery they are receiving from the IC. (Nor, for that matter, the speed at which they are able to access it.) This has spurred the Army, and more recently the Space Force, to push for pathways to directly buy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from commercial vendors.

“One of the things we need to look at the future is: Are military combatant commanders getting everything they need? And those of you that may read the bill when it passes will go, ‘probably not,’” he said. “And so we need to be able to 1: advertise what the needs are in government in a long term fashion, in terms of volume, resolution, spectrum, at a minimum. That has to be done, and we’re not doing that well.”

Another problem he said, is that even while NRO and NGA are buying more commercial capabilities, those data and products are not being sufficiently integrated with the input from classified sources.

The House version of the Intelligence Authorization Act, passed in July, points out that by law, federal agencies are required to undertake market research to see if any commercial products and/or services are available to meet mission needs before deciding to create an acquisition program for a bespoke solution. However, the HPSCI bill says, IC agencies “too often contract for custom products” rather than buying and adapting available commercial ones.

The HPSCI bill calls on the IC to “adopt a culture shift” to better ensure compliance with the law, and charges Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines with coming up with a plan for doing so within one year.

In addition, the bill directs the DNI to put forward to Congress within the next year a proposal for standing up an Office of Commercial Integration in each IC agency designed specifically to help small- and medium-sized companies with the administrative hurdles to apply for and receiving IC contracts.

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