COLORADO SPRINGS: The intelligence community is on the verge of “revolutionary” technical advances. Spy satellites and other systems will be able to watch a place or a person for long periods of time and warn intelligence analysts and operatives when target changes its behavior. Satellites and their sensors could be redirected automatically to ensure nothing is missed.
“We will have systems that are capable of persistence: staring at a place for an extended period of time to detect activity; to understand patterns of life; to warn us when a pattern is broken, when the abnormal happens; and even to use ABI [Activity Based Intelligence] methodologies to predict future actions,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said today in remarks here at the Space Foundation’s annual National Space Symposium.
Imagine a satellite has been tasked to watch a village with several high value targets in residence. The satellite, probably working with other assets such as Global Hawks and Predators, would perform what is today known as change detection. For example, the three people under surveillance etch the same rough pattern in the village for several weeks, going to the mosque, visiting a tea house and sleeping in several different houses. One day, two of the men go outside, get on scooters and drive in opposite directions. The ground station receiving the data would automatically note the shift in behavior and alert analysts or even special operations troops on standby.
I built that scenario after speaking with several of the 9,000 people attending this year’s event.
Clapper said the new spy satellite architecture — comprised of the spy satellites and the ground systems that receive data from them — “will be a system of systems,” Clapper said. They will be “fully automated,” he said, which means the satellites and perhaps other assets can be automatically redirected to new targets or to use new sensors from the ground. For most of the space age, a highly classified committee has met to decide tasking, i.e., which satellites would be redirected to which targets. Raytheon has built the current ground portion — called MIND (Mission Integration and Development) — of the NRO’s spy satellite system. That program has repeatedly been cited in recent years as an on-time and on-budget example of what the Intelligence Community can do.
Clapper’s reference to the new architecture is freighted with meaning. The Intelligence Community is hammering out decisions as it tries to decide what kinds of sensors, ground stations and satellites it will build for the next generation of signals intelligence. A push is also clearly underway to build ground stations — without which a satellite is pretty useless — that can use receive and analyze data without regard to which agency built the system or operates the sensors.
Finally, during the Q and A session after his speech, Clapper conceded that the Intelligence Community will not save much money as it moves to the cloud and implements its Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (basically, a cloud with different regions for different agencies within which they can all share if the user has the right permissions).
“No IT system in the history of the world has ever produced all the savings that have been touted,” he said to appreciative chuckles from the crowd. “The big reduction will be in the marching army of IT contractors we have in the IT today.” Simply put, the huge crowds of green badged contractors who have been so important to so much of the IC since 2001 will dwindle as America finishes its withdrawals from its historic presences in Afghanistan and Iraq.