WASHINGTON – A group of satellites operated by a U.S. company called HawkEye 360 surveyed the Middle East earlier this year and discovered radar and radio waves associated with a China-based fishing fleet off the coast of Oman.
When the company compared the data with information from NASA satellites that track light sources on the Earth’s surface, it found that ships used powerful lights – a telltale sign of squid hunting – while they were surreptitiously navigating the fishing waters of Oman with their turned tracking transponders disabled.
The surveillance was sort of a technological test – in this case, the company did not notify either Oman or China. But the work, company officials said, has demonstrated the types of intelligence that can be gleaned from their satellites, which have also detected military activity on the China-India border, tracking poachers. in Africa for groups of wild animals and tracked satellite phones used by smugglers. refugee work routes.
With Congress pushing the Biden administration to make more use of commercial satellites, intelligence officials begin awarding new contracts to show they can increase the capabilities of highly classified spy satellites with the increasingly sophisticated services available from the industry private.
On Monday, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced that it had awarded a $ 10 million contract to HawkEye 360 to track and map radio frequency emissions around the world, information the company says will help identify arms trafficking, foreign military activities and drug trafficking.
The contract follows a study contract awarded to the company by the National Recognition Office in 2019.
David Gauthier, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s business group, said collecting radio frequency data would help “tip and cue” imaging satellites, essentially telling officials where to look. Business data is also unclassified, making it easier for intelligence agencies to share data with their allies and partners.
The expansion of commercial satellites with greater Earth scanning capabilities is worrying some civil liberties experts. The ever-growing number of commercial satellites has eroded privacy, said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Government Secrecy Project.
But government contracts with the commercial satellite companies themselves have yet to attract much criticism, Mr Aftergood said, because government satellites are much more powerful, at least for now, than commercial satellites.
The exact capabilities of government satellites are well-kept secrets. However, under the previous administration, President Donald J. Trump posted on Twitter a photo of an Iranian launch site taken by a classified US satellite that had been included in his intelligence brief. The image was much more detailed than commercial satellite images from the same site.
In some quarters of intelligence agencies, this lagging business capacity has dampened enthusiasm to move forward with more contracts with the private sector. But Congress is pushing intelligence agencies to move faster.
This year’s Senate version of the Intelligence Authorization Act contains provisions to increase spending on commercial satellite programs. While the leadership of the intelligence agencies is on board, there is still reluctance in some corners of the agencies to embrace commercial technology, according to congressional advisers.
Current and former congressional officials recognize that the finest and most advanced intelligence technology is still designed and operated by government. But young business ventures offer ways to affordably cover much of the world, relieving the workload of larger government satellites.
The new intelligence bill, if approved by Congress this year, would set up an innovation fund that should allow the National Reconnaissance Office to buy more business capability faster and push the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency to further experiment with the award of external contracts to analyze a variety of images.
Mac Thornberry, the former Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who now sits on HawkEye’s advisory board, said part of the problem was the reluctance within government to use a cheaper, but much cheaper, product to intelligence gathering and analysis.
“Business imagery is a great way to keep tabs on what’s going on, so that the finest government systems can be concentrated elsewhere, but we’re still not going blind,” Thornberry said. “But there’s always a cultural malaise with leaning on something you don’t have control over, or as much control over, as your government systems.”
Government officials should realize that a $ 10 million commercial satellite is not a competitor to the $ 1 billion satellite built by the U.S. government, Thornberry said. The cheaper satellite can provide backup and help government satellites operate more efficiently.
“If anyone decides to drop our billion dollar satellites out of the sky or blind them somehow, we have to make sure we have backups so that we’re not totally blind,” Mr Thornberry said. .
The resilience of a system that combines both large and small satellites, government and commercial systems is a key part of the strategy of the National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency responsible for many of the most classified spy satellites. of the government.
“Our adversaries are attempting to threaten and question our advantage in space and the capabilities that we have been providing and have provided for a long time,” said Pete Muend, director of the commercial services program at the National Reconnaissance Office. “A diverse architecture made up of domestic and commercial satellites operating in multiple orbits is truly essential to our national security. “
The National Reconnaissance Office established a program office in 2018 to provide more sources of business information. Since then, the agency has awarded three multi-year contracts that deliver up to 100 million square kilometers of commercial images every week.
While the National Reconnaissance Office has primarily focused on acquiring commercial images, it has also looked at other commercial space technologies such as radio frequency satellites from HawkEye and others that collect radar data. and spectrum images beyond what the human eye can detect.
“I wouldn’t say they’re capable of collecting unique areas of the globe, but it’s really a different and complementary way of looking at it,” Mr. Muend said. “We’re really excited about how they can pull out ideas. “
HawkEye has previously tracked China’s commercial fishing fleet, catching vessels with beacon systems turned off and breaching the protected waters around the Galapagos. But its job in January to track the fleet incorrectly entering Omani waters was the first time the company had linked its data to NASA satellites.
While ocean-going commercial vessels are supposed to identify themselves with transponder beacons, these can be disabled. But HawkEye can identify Chinese fishing vessels by the radio bands their radar emits when hunting fish.
“This is further evidence of the poor behavior of China’s sovereign fishing fleet, which is actually a plague of locusts circling the earth, sucking up natural resources,” said John Serafini, managing director of HawkEye 360.
Neither the Chinese Embassy in Washington nor the Embassy of Oman responded to requests for comment.
The company calls its technology an orbital spiked jar capable of detecting anomalies, allowing analysts to point other satellites to an area for a peek.
“The importance of HawkEye,” Mr. Serafini said, “is that over time it gives you information about the lifestyle.”