Satellites are very useful for intelligence gathering. The U.S. military and intelligence community have used remote sensing satellites for decades to gather information on the activities of potential rival countries, and the movements of persons of interest around the world. The potential for enemies of the United States to gain similar capabilities has resulted in the United States preemptively restricting American companies from selling exquisite capabilities on the commercial markets abroad.
However, recent developments in the remote sensing industry are changing the security environment. Smaller satellites with lesser capabilities are now demonstrating new abilities to gather significant intelligence. Other countries will soon be able to develop their own exquisite remote sensing capabilities. This new security environment necessitates changes in America’s remote sensing policies; changes that focus on staying ahead of potential rivals rather than preventing them from catching up.
Capabilities once reserved for wealthy countries are now available to poorer countries and non-state actors. Inexpensive microsatellites demonstrated the ability to locate undisclosed Venezuelan military exercises. Human rights groups are using remote sensing capabilities to track potential war crimes and mass burials. Even though these systems can not produce the level of detailed imagery that the U.S. military and intelligence community get from their highly exquisite satellites, new approaches to imagery analysis allow relevant information to be gathered from lower quality images. As the algorithms and technology used for imagery analysis improve, the ability to pull information from imagery will also improve. As sensing technology innovates, smaller satellites will have greater capabilities.
The remote sensing industry’s organizational perspective is also changing. Historically, the industry operated as satellite builders and launchers. Today, remote sensing companies are moving more towards operating as big-data analysis firms. Some companies are starting to sell analysis of imagery that they do not produce themselves. Some analysis techniques have even been used predictively. For example, Harvard’s Satellite Sentinel Project anticipated military action in Sudan. In the future, deeper integration of remote sensing information with data from other sources—drones or aircraft, for example—may be used to produce highly detailed geospatial analysis.
These shifts will prove disruptive to an industry that the United States has kept a close eye on over the last few decades. It also means that American national security restrictions on remote sensing capabilities will lose efficacy. The U.S. regulatory system today cannot keep foreign capabilities from coming to the market. Instead, regulations are increasingly diminishing U.S. remote sensing companies’ competitiveness.
What should be done if the United States is quickly losing its advantage in remote imaging technologies?
America’s remote sensing advantage will rely on the ability of American companies to innovate and produce next generation systems. These may include new data gathering tools, such as radio-frequency monitoring, new algorithms, better integration with terrestrial or atmospheric systems, or simply more efficient and capable satellite constellations. New systems may also rely on unforeseen technological breakthroughs.
The United States will also need to be at the forefront of understanding these new tools so that it can build countermeasures if necessary. But the level of experimentation that will underpin those innovations requires much greater flexibility than currently afforded to the industry. Investments need to be made in advance, and companies will not pursue new approaches that may not be approved.
Allowing American firms to deploy capabilities that exist either in the international remote sensing market or through other technologies would be a good start. Such an approach would keep U.S. firms competitive. In the long run, however, the U.S. may have to start seeing space as akin to other industries that overlap with national security, such as computing. In these industries, national security rests on keeping one’s own capabilities ever-increasing, not relying solely on being able to prevent a potential enemy from closing the gap.
There are risks to a less restricted remote sensing market, but these risks—that enemies of the United States will be able to use remote sensing technologies against American interests—are growing regardless of America’s domestic restrictions. The new risks are that the United States gets left behind, stagnating as other countries innovate. These new risks can be mitigated, but the United States must adapt to the new environment in which it finds itself.