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Row over commercial satellite imagery cut intensifies

Washington, USA: Despite a recent assurance by the Pentagon, the row over satellite imagery cut got intensified. The nation’s military and intelligence officials are at loggerheads over the future of the USA’s spy satellites.

The Obama administration has proposed a cut in contracts for commercial satellite imagery to about USD 250 million from USD 540 million as part its budget proposal for fiscal 2013. According to a report published in The New York Times, both Republican and Democratic leaders on the Congressional intelligence committees are resisting the budget cuts and siding with the private companies and the military, which argues that it could not get as much imagery as it needs for combat operations without turning to the less expensive commercial technology.

“The debate is really between the military, which needs a lot of imagery but doesn’t need the highly classified imagery, and the intelligence community, which wants to keep the capability to produce its own imagery,” said Bill Wilt, a senior official with GeoEye, one of the private satellite companies.

In recent years, advances in commercially available technology have allowed private companies to develop satellites carrying high-resolution sensors and perform many of the surveillance tasks that were once the sole preserve of classified satellites owned and operated by the intelligence community. Two private companies already provide some of America’s spy satellite imagery, at far lower costs than government-owned satellites, according to current and former government and industry officials and outside analysts. The report published in NYT, further suggested that the commercial satellites are adequate for almost all the needs of the military.

“The technology of the current satellite architecture is pretty much at its limit, and the commercial satellites are producing just about the same thing at a much lower cost,” noted retired Gen. James E. Cartwright of the Marines, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The government’s satellites are better, but the question is, what do you need? Most studies show that about 90 percent of what the military needs can be solved with commercial.”

The military also favours commercial satellites because imagery from the intelligence community cannot be easily shared with allies. “The beauty of commercial imagery is that it is unclassified,” observed Walter Scott, chief technical officer of DigitalGlobe, a satellite company based in Longmont, Colorado.

The industry officials claimed that the decision to slash the commercial satellite budget could leave military commanders in the lurch. While, the intelligence officials stated the cuts would not have any impact on their ability to meet the demands for imagery from the military and the rest of the government.

Source: The New York Times