THEO VAN GOGH INTEL: NATO considers buying commercial imagery, irking US spy sat agencies: Sources

It is unclear whether the US Intelligence Community has directly responded to NATO’s call for information from allies on existing and emerging IMINT capabilities.


: NATO is mulling a new, and somewhat surprising, effort to directly buy imagery from commercial providers in a move that industry sources say appears to have irked the US spy satellite agencies that have traditionally filled that role. Interested companies have until the close of business today to respond to NATO’s request for information (RFI).

Alliance member nations, too, have been asked to identify “emerging and/or existing” remote sensing capabilities that could help NATO’s military command produce “imagery intelligence,” or IMINT. IMINT is provided primarily by satellites, as well as by aerial photography.

The US is the largest operator of military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites, and is outwardly supportive of the effort, which an IC official said could improve NATO’s production of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) products.

“We want NATO to produce timely, relevant, and trusted GEOINT that can be easily shared with the Alliance, and we work with NATO towards that end,” Melissa Planert, deputy director for international affairs at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), said in an email.

“NGA’s position is that we also strongly recommend NATO seek diverse imagery sources, products and services from across the Alliance and from commercial vendors,” she added. “A diverse selection of imagery and analysis providers will only benefit GEOINT contributions to NATO intelligence requirements, and strengthen NATO policymakers’ understanding of the complex security situation.”

NGA is responsible — in its role as GEOINT functional manager and a combat-support agency for the Defense Department — for providing imagery and ISR analytics to military commanders, including at NATO. NGA collects satellite imagery from the National Reconnaissance Office and US and selected foreign commercial providers.

In fact, one NGA official told Breaking Defense that the NATO RFI was spurred by concerns from allied military officials that budget cuts to the agency might affect their ability to receive timely US imagery and support.

But despite Planert’s assurances, industry sources said they’ve felt the US Intelligence Community is much less receptive to the idea of NATO using its collective budget to acquire commercial imagery and analytical services.

One industry official said that for NGA and NRO, “it’s all about control” of the information.

Exploratory First Step

The RFI was issued last month [PDF] by Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (HQ SACT), based in Norfolk, Va. SACT is one of only two NATO strategic commands, and is responsible for research, development and acquisition of new technology. French Gen. Philippe Lavigne was appointed as commander this past September.

A SACT spokesperson told Breaking Defense in an email that the RFI doesn’t represent a formal bidding process, rather is a first information-gathering step.

“The purpose of this RFI is to involve industry/academia and Nations, through collaboration, in an examination of current and future capabilities. This is the exploratory phase of the process and does not represent a commitment to acquire any such services,” the spokesperson wrote. “NATO looks forward to working with industry/academia and Nations to ascertain if they possess prospective products, systems or sub-systems that will then help inform NATO’s capability development decision-making process.”

It is unclear that if a decision is made to institute a formal procurement whether it would be the first time NATO has sought to collectively purchase its own IMINT.

The SACT spokesperson said that the NATO commands have worked with commercial imagery providers in the past during exercises. Further, Allied Command Transformation (ACT) “regularly works with nations and industry to identify prospective products that would support capability development in various fields.” However, the spokesperson was unable to confirm by press time whether there had ever been a formal acquisition program.

NATO only in 2019 declared space a legitimate operational domain, and in January this year finally released a first-ever alliance space policy. That policy calls on allies to voluntarily ensure compatibility among their national space assets, while pledging members to develop collective requirements and the means of fulfilling them — including the use of commercial capabilities.

Alliance commanders do have access to remote sensing imagery provided by member states. However, besides the US, only a handful of the 29 allied nations operate remote sensing satellites, military or commercial. According to a study [PDF] by CNA’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, US allies own or operate only a total of 69 remote sensing sats. Germany operates the most, with 16 birds. By contrast, US national security and commercial operators have more than 500.

Thus, the US is the primary provider of space-based ISR to NATO — although there have historically been problems with sharing images and analysis based on data from uber-classified spy-sats. This is one reason why there has been a public push by top military commanders to declassify space capabilities.

Indeed, in the run up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it took a decision by President Joe Biden himself to release imagery of the conflict from US spy satellites, Ronald Moultrie, DoD undersecretary for intelligence and security, told the USGIF GEOINT 2022 symposium near Denver this week. This includes pushing US commercial firms to provide Ukraine’s government, and release to the global public, their own imagery of Russian military actions, which have reportedly included human rights violations.

“That decision was not taken lightly,” he said. Rather, it was a “gutsy decision to say: ‘We are going to disclose some of the most insensitive, sensitive intelligence that we have, but it’s important enough for us to do.’”

Mixed Messages From The IC?

A number of industry sources told Breaking Defense in the run up to and during the GEOINT conference that IC officials were resistant to the concept of NATO using its collective funds to buy commercial imagery, rather than simply rely upon that provided by NGA/NRO and other NATO members. These sources said that IC officials were instead pushing NATO not to move ahead with a formal acquisition.

“NRO wants everything to go through them,” one company rep said bluntly.

Industry sources said that in early discussions they perceived that NGA/NRO officials were trying to discourage them from responding to the RFI. However, in a recent weekly phone call between commercial providers and NGA officials, these sources said, the agency was actually encouraging. And while company representatives were reluctant to say on the record whether their firm had responded to the RFI, suffice to say there is a lot of interest.

“If allies are asking for solutions, industry would be dumb not to answer,” the industry rep said.

One NGA official privately confirmed the recent phone call, and suggested to Breaking Defense that there must have been a breakdown in communications regarding NATO’s request.

Planert, for her part, said the agency is on board with US firms making a pitch. “Industry should certainly consider supporting NATO’s request, in line with established licenses, agreements, and compliance requirement,” she said in her email.

That said, it remains unclear whether NGA or NRO themselves intend to respond directly to the NATO RFI.

In response to questions from Breaking Defense during a press briefing at GEOINT on Monday, Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, outgoing NGA director, said his agency “is responding to and working closely with NATO” everyday, noting that NGA has personnel embedded with “international partners.” But he indicated that NGA had not directly answered the RFI’s call.

“When you say RFI, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an RFI. It’s knowing needs, knowing requirements, right, which drives how you collect what you collect where you collect it. So, that’s a cooperative process from us,” he said.

NRO’s head of commercial operations, Pete Muend, would not address the question directly when asked by Breaking Defense at a separate GEOINT press briefing.

“I’ve certainly read the RFI, as many of us have across the community, but I’d have to defer you to NGA, and others across the community, in terms of how they would want to respond,” he said.