New GEOINT strategy will direct agencies to look at commercial services first

The NGA is trying to flip the script on how U.S. spy agencies consider geospatial intelligence sources.

A forthcoming strategy will direct agencies looking for geospatial intelligence sources to use services offered by commercial companies before they consider government capabilities, according to a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency official.

NGA Director Vice Adm. Robert Sharp will soon sign a new commercial GEOINT strategy, according to Dave Gauthier, director of commercial and business operations at NGA. The last commercial strategy updates were signed in 2018.

“For the first time, this strategy makes the paradigm shift that tells our entire community of GEOINT professionals, ‘Thou shalt go out and use commercial sources as primary sources of intelligence for your production,’” Gauthier said during a Sept. 14 panel at the Intelligence and National Security Summit hosted by AFCEA and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

The strategy is “flipping the script” for agencies that have historically turned to custom satellites and other GEOINT capabilities first, Gauthier said.

“It is changing the way our analysts and operators think about how to solve problems,” he told Federal News Network. “Right now the default, through decades of work and training and tradecraft, is to think about our national sources first. And we’re basically saying, ‘Let’s pause in your thought process, think about what’s commercially available, and whether or not you can use that as the first source that you reference.’

“And that pause in the workflow is where we’re trying to inject new capabilities and new commercial solutions that most of our workforce may not even be aware of,” he added.

The government’s push to tap into the growing commercial space industry has been in motion for several years. For the past two decades, national policies have directed agencies to buy commercial good and services before considering the development of a government solution, Audrey Schaffer, director for space policy at the White House National Security Council, pointed out.

“The policy has been very clear and very consistent, and actually, the challenge has been in the implementation,” Schaffer said during the panel discussion.

Earlier this year, intelligence community officials established the Commercial Space Council to get intelligence agencies to use more capabilities available in the private sector. Gauthier chairs the council.

For its part, NGA has been focused on commercial analytic services. Gauthier said the agency has established three new services contracts in the last six months for commercial synthetic aperture radar, radio frequency emitter alerts, and economic indications and monitoring, respectively.

“If someone can provide information as a service, it just becomes one more supply line of source information that we can use to make insights about the world,” Gauthier said.

CASINO bets on commercial

The Space Force’s Space Systems Command is also taking a commercial-first approach through its Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations program, otherwise known as “CASINO.” The project is building off the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “BlackJack” program to demonstrate the usefulness of a proliferated network of low-earth orbit satellites.

Lt. Col. Tim Trimailo, materiel leader for the CASINO program office under the SSC Development Corps, said the program has adopted a “buy before you build” mentality. He said program officials will first look for commercial subscription services or opportunities to buy into commercial production runs of satellite busses or sensors, before even considering making modifications to available products to meet a requirement.

“We’re doing our best not to touch it whatsoever,” Trimailo said during the panel. “We just want to leverage it to the best of our ability. But in the modified sort of paradigm, we’re just making small tweaks. You might be building an app or a widget, an interface plate, to take advantage of that capability.”

He said the program is looking at small-dollar, shorter contract awards to “move out swiftly” using arrangements like the Space Enterprise Consortium. SMC awarded Virginia-based NSTXL a 10-year, potential $12 billion other transaction agreement to run the SPeC consortium last December.

“We’re trying to move out quickly in short periods of time, and have more of that DevSecOps approach, bringing in the user upfront to say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s this commercial service or capability out here. Do you think that would be useful? How and how would you use it?” Trimailo said. “So we can prototype quickly, and if we’re going to fail, fail fast, but learn fast and move on.”

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