Imagery's National Status Faces Questionable Future

May 1999
By Dr. Mark M. Lowenthal

The role of imagery as a national intelligence asset could be on the cusp of a promising alternative future, or it could be about to dwindle significantly. Much depends on the choices that the imagery community makes over the next several years.

Members of the imagery community include the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), the National Reconnaissance Office, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense and their relevant subordinates as well as the congressional oversight committees. This community is facing at least seven key issues, beginning with the changing nature of the threat.

Imagery has always had somewhat of an advantage over the other various intelligence collection disciplines because of its uniquely compelling visual quality. Other collection methods, such as signals or human intelligence, do not reflect the wonderful, raw, untouched feel of imagery that policy makers crave. Before data from the other disciplines reach the policy makers, someone must extract the gist.

Imagery had a tremendous utility during the Cold War when the main threat was quantifiable. Policy makers worried about the number of Soviet tanks, ships, missiles and other hard metal objects that could be photographed and counted. As leaders learned during the rapid endgame of the Cold War, other Soviet issues should have been tracked closely as well.

Many of the threats at the top of the list of national security concerns today are not very susceptible to surveillance by imagery. Chemical and biological weapon production tends to be an underground activity, both politically and physically. Terrorism and narcotics activities may have infrastructures that can be photographed, but such images are not as essential to countering those activities as imagery was to dealing with the Soviet threat. Finally, information warfare may leave little trace that can be captured by imagery. Thus, imagery, as previously known, may become increasingly tangential to emerging intelligence needs.

Processing and exploitation (P&E) is another key issue. Collection far outpaces image P&E. Too many images are left on the “cutting room floor.” The imagery is not lost, but it is not being converted into useful products for analysts or for policy makers.

This continuing bias for collection has several direct and baneful costs. The underinvestment in P&E makes imagery less useful because not as much of it can reach the analysts or policy makers. A political cost also exists. The inability or unwillingness of the imagery community to address P&E needs in a more meaningful way makes imagery managers look either callous or misguided. These managers are aware of the problem, but some pay it no more than lip service. This situation leads to the perception that the imagery managers’ only interest is collection, even if it serves no useful function.

As legislative oversight puts increasing emphasis on P&E, the gulf grows between the imagery community and Congress The perception of a stubborn imagery community, focused on collection over all else, makes future supportive funding decisions more difficult for Congress.

A third issue for the imagery community is the continuing underinvestment in an imagery library function. Improved library functions would help mitigate the collection problem by improving retrieval, but the lack of investment feeds the perception of a collection-only imagery community. A self-fulfilling prophecy is at work: Because images collected and filed away yesterday cannot be retrieved, more must be collected.

The storage and retrieval problem has at least two aspects. Some responsibility lies with Congress, which has not been willing to make major investments in the library function. Part of the blame also lies with NIMA, which continues to pursue unique, homegrown library functions rather than explore the abundant world of commercial off-the-shelf products.

Imagery’s emphasis is on the warfighter, which is in itself another key issue. Few people would deny that the Defense Department is always going to be the main customer of the imagery and intelligence communities. But the continuing use of the phrase “warfighter” leads people down the wrong path.

The use of that term is both mendacious and wrong politically. Not only is this country not at war, but also its stated national policy is to avoid war. The United States seeks to be so well prepared and so militarily preponderant as to scare off all but the most irrational national actors. Emphasizing the warfighter abandons this goal.

This emphasis also gives alarming precedence to tactical imagery requirements, severely undercutting the ability of imagery to serve joint military customers or national customers in any department or agency. The Jeremiah Report issued in the aftermath of the Indian nuclear test is a case in point. Although some awareness of the test preparations existed—not to mention India’s avowed political desire to test—imagery needs over the Korean demilitarized zone, or DMZ, had precedence.

No one will deny the importance of the Korean DMZ or the dangers the United States faces there. But, for at least one day, the nonproliferation issue, which the Clinton administration has placed among its top intelligence priorities, could have had first call on imagery.

If this sort of tactical emphasis for imagery continues, national policy makers will see less and less imagery, except during crises. This decrease will reduce the justification for political or budgetary support of imagery as a major asset, and imagery will become less relevant to daily needs. Of the various issues addressed in this viewpoint, the warfighter emphasis is the most self-fulfilling aspect of imagery activities and the unfortunate direction in which these activities may be headed.

The cost of imagery is another element of its future. Imagery is and has always been expensive. During the Cold War, those costs were politically sustainable. This may no longer be the case with the follow-on systems in the future. First, if national customers are disengaged from imagery as a complement to their regular information needs, they will be less likely to support large expenditures for it. Second, the P&E imbalance already noted will undercut new spending decisions in Congress. If analysts cannot process or exploit imagery, then the justification for spending more money on it will decline. On its current path, imagery is a self-limiting commodity, relying on its past utility to ensure future investment. This is a losing approach. High-level relevance will build future budgets, not past successes.

Many of the threats that are the most worrisome today, such as chemical and biological weapon proliferation, require more measurement and signature intelligence, or MASINT. These are among the issues that the Clinton administration has placed at the top of its intelligence agenda.

MASINT has always been something of a stepchild in the intelligence arena, with the imagery community being almost hostile to the discipline as well as to hyperspectral, multispectral and even radar-derived imagery. These methods do little to support the warfighter. As far as many imagery analysts are concerned, MASINT is little more than poor imagery. Because MASINT can produce an image—a visual product—it is falsely compared to products whose only purpose is visual. On that basis, MASINT will always lose. To imagery analysts, resolution is everything, whether it answers the question or not. MASINT collects data that imagery cannot; resolution is not the issue.

MASINT eventually will gain more resources because it addresses those intelligence needs that increasingly are on everyone’s mind. MASINT is extremely useful for some of the hard target coverage that the United States now seeks. It is, in many ways, an all-source collection discipline in its own right as it brings together so many of the other classic ones, including imagery and signals. Despite the imagery community’s bias—and here the Defense Department bears a large burden—imagery will inevitably lose ground to MASINT over the longer term.

Ready or not, here comes commercial imagery as yet another concern. The world has already reached a point where the U.S.-Russian duopoly on imagery has been broken. As private satellites begin to orbit, this trend will grow, and NIMA will not be able to sustain its role as the arbiter/provider of commercial imagery. Agencies will begin to purchase commercial imagery on their own, directly or indirectly. The effect will be a further narrowing of the government imagery niche as nontactical users outsource to meet their needs. Again, imagery will have self-defined a narrow niche of customers.

Analysts and policy makers increasingly want more than just imagery. They want better visual displays that integrate a wider variety of intelligence in one place, on one screen. Maps and images are, in some respects, an outdated way of presenting information, especially to the warfighter. Unless the imagery community begins moving in this direction, it will be producing daily relics, not vivid intelligence.

These techniques already are in abundant use commercially. Viewers see real-time video nightly on the news as well as low-resolution displays of multisource data such as weather. The news media use these presentations because they understand that, in a time-constrained environment, they must use the most compelling means available to convey information. The imagery community needs to catch up. By adopting some of these techniques, the community would have the means at hand to offer more products that could serve more users than just the tactical warfighter.

The imagery community is facing a series of decisions that largely will determine its own future. The path this country is on will be the last gasp of the imagery world it has known. Follow-on systems will be fewer in number than planners expect, and they will be more difficult to fund for political reasons. Political support for imagery in the executive office and in Congress will decline. Imagery will increasingly be seen as a niche provider to the military, with occasional wider peaks of interest during crises or actual combat activities. Many imagery needs for national customers will be outsourced, with or without NIMA’s permission. NIMA’s own budgetary future will be increasingly problematic.

Several opportunities do exist. First, NIMA can more fully embrace the new world of visual displays and become more than just imagery and mapping. Second, the nation can allocate more resources to MASINT and give it the kind of attention it deserves, as either a collection discipline in its own right or as a vibrant sector within NIMA.

Decision makers also can make a greater effort to redress the P&E versus collection imbalance. They must realize that collection will always outpace P&E, although not at the levels the nation now tolerates. Indeed, the United States can begin thinking of P&E in a broader sense, as something that can be carried out by trained analysts in a variety of agencies, not just the classic photograph interpreters housed within NIMA.

In addition, the policy makers can think more creatively about the kinds of follow-on imagery collection systems that will make better contributions to this new imagery world. The imagery community needs to embrace more enthusiastically the growing array of commercial tools—displays, library-type functions and even raw imagery itself—that are now available. Leaders must think beyond imagery as they understand it today so that imagery, in its new guise, remains a truly national asset.

The jury on imagery’s future has not yet even been empaneled. Ironically, the largest impediment to this alternative future is the imagery community itself. It must decide who it wants to be and the future it wants to enjoy. The choices are rather stark, but they are still choices that can be made.


Dr. Mark M. Lowenthal is president and chief operating officer of Open Source Solutions (OSS USA), Fairfax, Virginia.

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