ast Christmas Eve, a privately held company launched the first commercial high-resolution remote sensing satellite from Eastern Russia. For the first time, spy-quality images previously available only to U.S. and Russian military and intelligence agencies went on sale in the commercial marketplace.
Once the purview of governments, space technology is going commercial. The launch of EarlyBird 1, a product of EarthWatch Inc., based in Longmont, Colo., and other similar satellites coming later this year illustrates both the promise and the challenge posed by a new era in space operations. The commercialization of high-resolution satellite imagery, one of many space-based technologies with mass market potential, will have a tremendous positive impact on such diverse fields as agriculture, environmental monitoring, map making and disaster relief. At the same time, such technology in the hands of a terrorist or rogue state could damage the national security of the United States and its allies.
Spurred by global competition, advances in technology and a loosening of Cold War governmental restrictions, commercial firms are investing in space technologies at an unprecedented rate. Three years ago, the market for remote sensing satellite imagery was about $315 million, according to Commerce Department estimates. By 2000, market revenue from data sales and services is expected to top $2 billion, increasing more than sixfold in five years. But along with economic opportunities come challenges for federal regulators trying to balance commercial interests with national security.
"I don't know that we have ever had a historical period that is analogous to the one we're about to enter, which is why the policy decisions are so difficult," says Keith Calhoun-Senghor, director of the Commerce Department's office of air and space commercialization. "We've never tread this ground before."
The trend is clear: Commercial investment in space technology is fast outpacing government investment. Space industry revenues are expected to exceed $100 billion by 2000, according to the "State of the Space Industry, 1997 Outlook," developed by the investment firm SpaceVest, KPMG Peat Marwick and the Center for Wireless Telecommunications. Even the operation of NASA's space shuttle fleet is being turned over to a private company.
"The fact that [the investment] is largely commercial has driven the fact that you have now joint venture partnerships that blur the kinds of distinctions you used to have in a national space program," Calhoun-Senghor says. This era of "new space," as he refers to it, is different from the science and hardware driven age of early space exploration. While international commercial forces will drive the new era, it is the desire for information itself that is fueling the trend. "This is about harnessing, processing and gathering information," he says.
The government's role should be to recognize and accept this trend, then to "figure out the policies that will facilitate our national interest by balancing our commercial interest with our national security and foreign policy interests," Calhoun-Senghor says. But that's easier said than done, he acknowledges, likening the challenges posed by the commercialization of space to those posed by the Internet. It is a new phenomenon, based not on hardware as much as on "the movement, management and manipulation of data, converting data into information and converting information into knowledge. The ability to do that will determine those companies that do well into the 21st century," he says. "The difficulty is that the problems and the issues arise faster than our experience base grows," he says.
Reconciling national security concerns with the interests of U.S. industry trying to compete in the global marketplace is one of those problems. Historically, the export of militarily sensitive technology has been controlled by the State Department, acting on recommendations from Defense, under the Arms Control Export Act. State has broad authority to deny a license if it believes granting one would counter national security or foreign policy interests. While denials can be appealed, no court has ever reversed a licensing decision by State.
Under the Export Administration Act, Commerce grants licenses for exports of most, but not all, dual-use technology-technology with both commercial and military uses. Commerce weighs economic and trade interests as well as national security and foreign policy concerns when granting export licenses. State and Defense both have input into Commerce's decisions, but Commerce has the final authority. Disagreements are resolved by interagency review committees, or if agreement cannot be reached, by the President.
Some dual-use technologies have long been sources of contention between State and Commerce. Satellites, even those serving commercial needs, contain sensitive military technology. Satellite launch technology, in particular, is similar to that used in ballistic missiles, causing concern among Defense officials about the potential transfer of such technologies to non-allied nations.
In 1990, President Bush ordered the removal of dual-use items from the U.S. Munitions List and the State Department's licensing controls unless such removal would jeopardize significant national security interests. After a two-year interagency review led by State, jurisdiction for about half of the commercial communications satellites was transferred to Commerce.
Under the Clinton administration, Commerce's jurisdiction over export licenses for commercial satellites has expanded. In 1994, the White House specifically addressed satellite imagery with its stated policy "to support and to enhance U.S. industrial competitiveness in the field of remote-sensing space capabilities while at the same time protecting U.S. national security and foreign policy interests." Successfully competing in the global remote-sensing market would help maintain the U.S. industrial base, advance U.S. technology, create economic opportunities, strengthen the U.S. balance of payments, enhance national influence, and promote regional stability, according to a White House statement.
"But at what cost?" asks one Defense official. "What you have now is a situation where commercial technology has advanced to the point where you will soon have highly sensitive imagery data widely available. I don't care how careful we think we're being about granting licenses. If somebody wants this information badly enough they'll find a way to get it. And the fact of the matter is, it will become a lot easier to get."
The EarlyBird satellite launched in December and other satellites with even greater capability scheduled for launch this year are the first commercial satellites capable of producing intelligence-quality images. Control over the collection and distribution of the data collected by the satellites is likely to be an ongoing issue for federal regulators. Commerce, working with State and Defense, is now developing procedures for regulating such imagery. Earlier this year, with congressional backing, the imaging of Israel was restricted.
Space technology and exploration was for years dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, largely because the cost of getting off the planet was so prohibitive. The situation has changed with advances in technology that have brought down costs and the end of the Cold War, which drove much of the superpowers' investment in space.
"Less than five years ago, DoD was the technology leader and technology engine for satellite communications," says Gil Klinger, acting deputy undersecretary of Defense for space. "Now we are struggling to jump on the train that has already left the station.
"I don't see any drawbacks to what's going on, but I see things that we have to account for," says Klinger. "We need to ensure that the safeguards are in place to prevent those products from falling into unsanctioned hands or falling into the hands of people aspiring to damage ourselves or our allies, whether the targets would be commercial or military." By the turn of the century, at least a dozen countries will possess commercial remote-sensing capabilities, according to Commerce officials.
In Klinger's opinion, adequate measures exist to regulate imagery produced by U.S. companies. "The facts of life are that the United States and U.S. industry are not the only providers of these sorts of services and capabilities and we are obligated as a matter of policy, as reflected in the President's policy, to recognize that we believe we do it as well or better than anybody else and therefore with the proper safeguards we think that our national economic security is strengthened by allowing our corporations to compete favorably in that market."
If the end of the Cold War signaled a turning point in commercial investment in space, the 1992 Persian Gulf War brought home the military relevance of space technology. Desert Storm was the first major military conflict in which space systems were extensively integrated into military operations. "The nation will never conduct another major military operation without the use of space systems," says Gen. Gerald Perryman Jr., commander of Air Force Space Operations. "Space technology has fundamentally changed the way we do our military business, and there's no going back."
Nowhere is this more clear than in the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), the Defense Department's constellation of satellites blanketing the globe to provide precise time and location data to users on the ground and at sea. GPS, developed by the Air Force over two decades at a cost of about $10 billion, provided military commanders with navigation data critical both to moving troops and targeting munitions during the Gulf War. U.S. troops were so convinced of the utility of GPS before the war that many who had not been issued GPS receivers purchased their own commercial receivers at local electronics shops before deploying to the Gulf.
Since the Gulf War, GPS has improved tremendously, says Perryman. It also has been more fully integrated into military operations, giving more troops access to navigation data and providing more accurate targeting data for U.S. weapons. The technology has also proved irresistible to commercial users. Rental car agencies are putting receivers in automobiles to aid travelers in unfamiliar cities. Boston Marathon organizers have used it to show the progress of runners on video. Hikers use GPS to navigate new terrain. The potential uses of the technology are nearly unlimited. By 2000, industry observers estimate that military users will account for only 1.5 percent of the GPS market.
"No one envisioned more than a small fraction of the astonishing number of [GPS] applications, the vast majority of which are commercial and civil," Klinger says. "We did not create an entire industry, an entire industry created itself. It was a navigation system we put up there for national security."
But the commercial success of GPS poses a problem for the military. GPS broadcasts two different signals. The first is an intentionally degraded signal, accurate to 100 meters, and is available to non-military users with commercial receivers. The second, accurate to within 20 meters, is encrypted for military and other authorized users. In fact, commercial receivers were so pervasive among U.S. troops during the Gulf War that the Pentagon temporarily turned off the mechanism that degrades the civilian signal so troops would have access to the more accurate navigation data. Since then, thousands more military receivers have been issued to U.S. troops and by 2000, military planners expect all troops will carry GPS receivers.
As civilians become increasingly dependent on GPS, the demand for a more accurate signal for non-military users will increase. Already, commercial users are turning to GPS "augmentation" services that provide more accurate location data than GPS alone provides by using a base station with a known location to beam an additional signal to GPS users. In some cases, the augmented GPS signal is more accurate than the encrypted GPS signal available to military users.
The potential availability of highly accurate GPS data to enemy troops on future battlefields further complicates military operations. A 1996 RAND study warns the military to prepare for the data to fall into enemy hands.
The increasing likelihood that forces hostile to the United States will be able to exploit satellite technology raises a number of troubling issues. To the extent that the military depends on commercial, dual-use satellite systems, those systems could become military targets during a conflict, and the United States should be prepared to defend its assets, defense officials say. But just how far the United States should go to militarize space is hotly debated inside and outside the Pentagon.
Freedom of access to space is analogous to freedom of the seas, Klinger says. "We need to assure as a matter of our national security that we have the freedom to operate from space, the freedom to utilize space systems in support of our activities, our national security and our economic security," says Klinger. "We need to deny the ability of an adversary to have that same use of space or impede our use of it."
"Does that mean war in space? Absolutely not. If I put a 500-pound bomb through Saddam Hussein's ground stations used to receive space communications, that is accomplishing the mission without ever having to do anything in space," he says.
Nonetheless, the Defense Department appears to be taking no chances. If actions in recent war games are an indication, it seems clear the military is preparing to escalate a potential conflict to space if necessary. In a simulated battle exercise at Army Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., in February, U.S. planners knocked out an "enemy" satellite with a space-based weapon. Last year, in what critics said was a breach of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, President Clinton authorized the firing of an Army laser at a defunct U.S. satellite to test the vulnerability of satellites to ground-based lasers.
"Right now the threat [to U.S. space systems] doesn't dictate that we need to do anything, but it's certainly something we're charged to look at," says Lt. Gen. Lance W. Lord, vice commander of Air Force Space Command. The Air Force is responsible for the bulk of military space capability.
In a speech to members of the Air Force Association last November in Los Angeles, Gen. Howell Estes, commander of both U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command, said "America's civil and commercial developments in space will one day need protection." In future decades, space power will accomplish many of the same functions that air power accomplishes today, he said.
There are more than 500 satellites in space currently, more than 220 owned by the United States, Estes said. U.S. News and World Report estimates another 1,800 will be added over the next decade, representing investments worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Protecting those assets will become increasingly important. "Air Force 2025," a study that examines issues facing the service, states that "The need to counter future space threats and minimize U.S. space vulnerabilities will drive the American people to accept the inevitable: weapons in space."
Not all military officers agree. In a paper presented to the Ethics and the Future of Conflict Working Group in Washington in November, Air Force lawyer Col. Charles Dunlap raised concerns about such thinking. The United States' heavy reliance on civilian satellites, many of which are owned by international consortiums, and the probability that future opponents will likewise depend upon commercial surveillance and communications, presents a legal and moral conundrum, Dulap said.
"As a practical matter, it is difficult to foresee many scenarios [that would] justify attacks on dual-use satellites, especially where nations not a party to the conflict rely upon them for essential communications," he said.
"It may be more prudent to pursue a legal regime that declares space a 'sanctuary' akin to that afforded communications facilities located in neutral territory," he added. Such a strategy would be in keeping with the United States' historic policy toward space, Dunlap said.
It won't be an easy issue to resolve. Between 90 percent and 95 percent of DoD's telecommunications go over commercial networks. In a conflict, that infrastructure is a viable and legal target, says Daniel Kuehl, a professor at the National Defense University's School of Information Warfare. Nations that sign up to use international space communications systems agree to use them only for peaceful purposes. Because the 1992 war against Iraq was a United Nations-sanctioned operation, the coalition partners' use of international satellite systems did not become an issue, Kuehl says. But the day could come when the United States would want to take military action unilaterally, and access to international communications systems could become problematic. "Our ability to exercise and employ military force depends on much more than military communications systems," Kuehl says.
The military's reliance on the private sector, even in times of conflict, is not new, Pentagon officials point out. Commercial sealift and the civil reserve air fleet were critical to moving troops and materiel to the Persian Gulf in 1991, for instance. "We have always relied on commercial capabilities to some degree or another, and not just in the space business," says Klinger. "Every day our communications in and out of the United States are riding on everything from the commercial public switch telephone network to commercial satellite traffic."
The military's reliance on commercial products and services means commercial suppliers will have to take precautionary measures, such as encrypting signals or employing anti-jamming technology, to ensure data and services are continually available to battlefield commanders, he says.
Affordable Access to Space
Budget restrictions are forcing the government to rely increasingly on commercial technology in space, says Michael Mott, associate deputy administrator at NASA. The space agency's annual budget has dropped to less than $14 billion, far below what NASA officials had projected early this decade. Defense and intelligence agencies are estimated to spend about $25 billion on space. Nowhere are budget pressures more critical than in launch operations, Mott says. Both NASA and the Defense Department are pursuing launch programs in the hopes of reducing launch costs by at least 25 percent. DoD is developing an expendable launch vehicle, while NASA develops a reusable launch vehicle.
"This is a critical issue," says Klinger. "It doesn't matter how good our satellites are if we can't get them up into space. We need to get them there on the schedule we demand."
Last year for the first time, commercial payload launches outnumbered government launches. That, and the fact that commercial launches will only increase in the future, is driving the development of new launch vehicles. "The dramatic sea change is the extent to which the availability of commercial products and commercial systems and services are affecting how we think about where we want to go in terms of things like launch and communications and potentially in the remote sensing imagery area," Klinger says. Commercial developments will drive costs down and ultimately be very positive for the government, both Mott and Klinger say.
But technology that becomes more affordable for the United States also becomes more affordable for potential adversaries, ensuring that national security concerns and the need for new technologies to counter emerging threats will continue to plague space operations into the foreseeable future.
As the source of 90 percent of the military's space capability and the bulk of its funding, the Air Force is likely to bear much of the burden for resolving these issues. Estes, who was not available for an interview, was blunt in his assessment for the future of military space in his November speech.
"Space must expand and become a larger part of the Air Force budget every year. It has to be this way because it is unlikely anyone is going to give the Air Force a bigger slice of the pie to cover our expansion into space," he said. If the Air Force's stated goal of becoming a space and air force is more than rhetoric, then the Air Force will have to start making a more significant investment in space technology and operations, he said.
The Defense Department's fiscal 1999 budget request maintains spending for Defense space programs, but does not fund new programs or expand existing programs. To realize the full potential of space, the service will have to change its culture and accept full responsibility for the role of space and its importance to the future interests of the country, Estes said. The Air Force "must come to grips with the ever-changing nature of war and its implications for our ever-expanding use of space as an equal and vital member of the joint air, land, sea, and space warfighting team."
Just what such changes in warfare will require of the military is disputable. But few would argue with Estes' assessment of the present: "It is a crossroads in history that our nation has reached. Our actions regarding space over these next few years will set the course for the next quarter century, and I propose we had better choose carefully."