Overseas competition eroding American edge in spy satellites

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Pictures from sharp-eyed satellites, once the domain of the United States and Russia, are becoming so easy to obtain that the military may have to alter its strategies knowing adversaries with a minimum of know-how and money can be watching.

Perhaps a half-dozen countries as well as some private companies have spy satellites that, while not as good as those used by the United States, are able to supply solid military intelligence.

"The unique spaceborne advantage that the U.S. has enjoyed over the past few decades is eroding as more countries -- including China and India -- field increasingly sophisticated reconnaissance satellites," CIA Director George J. Tenet said in a recent Senate hearing.

Tenet said adversaries are quickly learning how to take advantage.

"Foreign military, intelligence and terrorist organizations are exploiting this -- along with commercially available navigation and communications services -- to enhance the planning and conduct of their operations," he said.

In the past, only Moscow had satellite capability approaching that of the United States.

Now, with its own spy satellites, China would be able to learn of the location and composition of a U.S. carrier battlegroup dispatched during a potential dispute over Taiwan.

Replicating technology

The latest advances in foreign countries are largely the result of their research rather than technology purchases or espionage, experts said. The United States pioneered much of the technology; now, other countries are replicating it.

"We're losing our monopoly," said James Lewis, a former Commerce and State Department space policy expert now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "After the war in the Persian Gulf, other countries figured out it was really good to have space capabilities."

U.S. military satellites remain the best -- they can discern far more detail and collect more images. Their numbers allow them to take pictures more frequently of a given area.

But now that other countries have access to high-resolution imagery, they can count tanks, track fleets and acquire other information useful in predicting U.S. military moves.

That means the military will have to practice the same "denial and deception" techniques adversaries have used to avoid detection by U.S. reconnaissance, experts say. Tanks are camouflaged under trees. Secret projects are hidden in buildings when a reconnaissance satellite is overhead.

During the first months of the Afghan war, the United States simply bought exclusive access to the right parts of the orbit of the Ikonos satellite, then the best commercial satellite in the skies. This prevented anyone else from having a look at Afghanistan, and the U.S. company that runs Ikonos, Space Imaging Inc., was happy to sell.

It's unclear if the U.S. government will do that in future wars.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who has studied these issues, suggested the military develop ways to jam satellite transmissions and prevent ground stations from receiving the pictures.

"The more information an adversary has, the more vulnerable we are," he said.

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