COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Since before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, space imagery, remote sensing and communications satellites have been informing the public and helping keep Ukrainian forces and civilians connected.
Because of its partnerships with commercial industry, the U.S intelligence community was positioned to quickly leverage those capabilities to increase its own support in the region, accelerating several in-the-works acquisition efforts and increasing the capacity of planned procurements.
David Gauthier, director of commercial and business operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said Wednesday at the Space Symposium that as it became apparent Russia was preparing to invade, the agency worked to more than double its purchases of commercial electro-optical imagery over the region from companies like Maxar, Planet and BlackSky.
NGA also tapped its testing pipeline for commercial synthetic aperture radar and pushed it directly into operations months earlier and at five times the rate it had planned, Gauthier said. SAR satellites, unlike electro-optical sensors that can struggle to see in the dark or in harsh conditions, can provide imagery at nighttime and through adverse weather conditions.
“But really, that wasn’t good enough,” Gauthier said. “We were patting ourselves on the back a little bit, but we still had this feeling in our minds that we needed to get more [geospatial intelligence] directly into the hands of Ukrainians to really impact what is happening on the ground.”
So, Gauthier and his team began coordinating private efforts to directly connect analysts in Ukraine with companies — facilitating a much faster link for providing services. He noted that the agency is now also speeding up its acquisition of some “new and untested commercial services” that could support humanitarian aid efforts.
Gauthier said this practice of pushing “good enough solutions into operations immediately” needs to become a more regular way of doing business for the government.
“We’ve had the luxury for several decades of being able to choose perfection when we integrate new capabilities into our IT architectures,” he said.
One approach NGA has taken is to tailor its testing, evaluation and authority to operate processes for different systems, depending on the complexity and security requirements of their mission. With that approach, he said, a situational awareness capability may be able to field more quickly than it would in the more traditional acquisition system.
“We really do need a spectrum across the board that lets us bring new commercial solutions to the fight almost instantly,” Gauthier said.
The U.S. Space Force is also looking at ways to better leverage commercial capabilities. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters this week the display of commercial capability during the conflict is already driving the Department of Defense to consider how to better integrate commercial systems.
“You’re seeing through the Ukrainian experience the value of space capabilities,” Kendall said Tuesday. “Commercial space is very much a part of that equation. So, there are going to be a lot of lessons learned as we go through this by a lot of different parties, and we’re going to sort out what it implies for our future investments and how we work with commercial space.”
Along those lines, U.S. Space Command this week released a new commercial integration strategy, a segment of which is focused on speeding up the time it takes to field capabilities.
SPACECOM Commander Gen. James Dickinson told reporters Tuesday he wants to make it easier for companies to enter into agreements to provide capabilities like space domain awareness and imagery. The command has seen during the Ukraine invasion the benefits of augmenting its systems with commercial capability and wants to do more of that, he said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.