Geospatial Data Collection Looms Large in Defense

March 2001
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

For years, national technical assets were the only game in town for military users of remote sensing imagery. Now, however, a new generation of commercial imaging satellites promises to play an important role in future military operations. Their improved quality and increased versatility may even change tactics and strategy for theater activities.

The success of military operations long has been influenced by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. As far back as the U.S. Civil War, commanders recognized the utility of the detached high ground by sending scouts airborne in balloons, and the famous aerial dogfights of World War I evolved from the proliferation of reconnaissance aircraft over no man’s land.

The importance of aerial combat photography in World War II eventually matured into the need for reconnaissance satellites to provide vital imagery during the Cold War. These orbiters served a largely strategic role in monitoring military developments behind the Iron Curtain. However, as their resolution increased and their imaging technologies became electronic, reconnaissance satellites began to take on a greater tactical role in tracking theater military developments.

This was driven home during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East. Satellite imagery was crucial to U.S. efforts at following the fast-changing tactical picture in the Sinai peninsula. Subsequent U.S. military operations were supported by imagery derived from national technical means.

Now the commercial remote sensing sector is poised to have as much of an effect on defense operations as civilian cellular telecommunications has had on military communicators. The potential of commercial satellite imagery lies not in merely supplementing data from national technical assets, but in filling a vital gap by providing rapid, easily disseminated geospatial information products.

The space above our heads is filling up with high-resolution imagers. Where Landsat began providing 30-meter multispectral imagery, and Spot introduced 10-meter panchromatic imagery in 1986, recently launched satellites have been beaming 5-, 1.8- and 1-meter panchromatic imagery to Earth. Multispectral imagery with a resolution of 4 meters also is available. The United States recently granted a license for 0.5-meter resolution remote sensing, and the first satellite employing this technology is expected to be launched in 2004. With the blessing of various governments, commercial satellite imaging steadily has been closing the gap with its military progenitor.

While no government is likely to license commercial technologies that match the state of the art in national technical assets, the commercial marketplace is becoming capable of performing what were everyday military remote sensing functions just three decades ago. The amount of detail now available in commercial panchromatic imagery can permit an analyst to discern a civilian tractor from a military truck. Soon, that analyst will be able to determine different types of armored vehicles, possibly including successive generations of tanks.

The real advantage may lie in the ability to mix and match commercial remote sensing products. With resolution now sufficient to identify individual vehicles, analysts can begin to exploit different spectra to generate advanced geospatial information system (GIS) products. False-color imagery that has been useful to agriculture and land planners, for example, now can be applied to military needs as well.

Camouflage that normally would fool panchromatic and conventional multispectral imaging could be foiled by new multispectral processing techniques that unveil the real objects. Data from radar satellites can be combined with visible and near-infrared imagery to penetrate foliage and identify military targets. The range of spectra available from these different satellites can create a whole new market for military intelligence products emerging from the private sector.

While existing national technical assets employ more advanced versions of these technologies, the new high-resolution commercial imagery offers a distinct advantage. Its unclassified nature allows it to be distributed widely to—or accessed by—warfighters at all levels. And, new battlefield hardware can allow some of these commercial surveillance images to be downloaded to theater commanders in near real time.

Traditionally, potential allied adversaries often have kept track of the orbital paths of Western reconnaissance satellites to hide sensitive assets and activities from the space-based prying eyes when they pass overhead. However, the proliferation of high-resolution commercial satellites may end up rendering this occasional concealment obsolete. Instead of facing a window of operational interruption that occurs only when a military satellite passes overhead, the foe can virtually count on being under some form of surveillance by the growing number of commercial satellites constantly arcing through their orbits.

This promises to change the very nature of tactical operations. Just as Western forces can count on CNN covering their operations in real time, adversaries can expect Western governments to use commercial remote sensing assets to help watch their every move. With the ability to access this imagery in real time, allied commanders at all levels could be viewing enemy activities direct from the commercial satellite as soon as the adversary’s forces begin to maneuver. Very little will be moved in secret.

Remote sensing has not yet attained the status of the commercial market driving military technologies. However, its commercial information products do provide military forces with a new capability. Both offensive and defensive military planners would be well advised to incorporate this facet in future doctrine.