The Watchmen and the Scientists: Reconciling the Tribes of Space-based Reconnaissance and Scientific Earth Observation

Originally published in Science Progress.


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A comprehensive approach to developing, deploying, and utilizing our eyes in the sky can revolutionize national security and environmental sustainability.

Since the beginning of the American Republic, science and national security have had a long history of interplay. While the nature of their interaction has evolved over the centuries, the premise that strength in science is key to strong national security has long been broadly accepted. Traditional formulations of this premise have often focused on the role scientific advances and science-based technological progress played in supporting warriors with superior weapons and weapons platforms. However, science has also long played a role expanding military capabilities in what experts call “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” technologies, or ISR.

Particularly in the post-WWII era, the United States witnessed an explosion of complex, science-based aerospace platforms (both airborne and space-based) and remote sensing technologies. This milieu, however, quickly diverged into two different communities: the Watchmen, who monitored the Earth to ensure security, and the Scientists, who monitored the Earth to develop a better fundamental understanding of Earth processes such as the atmosphere, weather, oceans, land dynamics, and later, meta-level phenomena like climate change. It is important to understand how these two communities emerged, diverged, and that they hold the potential, if they ally, to address some of the world’s most vexing problems. It is a ripe opportunity to adapt American institutions to better exploit the synergies between the Watchmen and the Scientists.

It’s time for the Obama administration to leverage the independent reviews recently conducted for both NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, to develop a comprehensive Earth observation strategy. A comprehensive approach to developing, deploying, and utilizing our eyes in the sky can ensure more effective and efficient use of precious intellectual and financial resources as we struggle to address traditional national security challenges, the array of transnational threats that plague us, as well as the complex, looming menace posed by global climate change. But this will require significant attention paid to national security reform, the governance of Earth science, a fundamental rethinking of the programming and budgeting process, and—not least of all—leadership.

The Emergence of Science-Based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance

Scientists first tackled the ISR challenges of warfare during World War I. The United States military sponsored the development of infrared-sensitive photographic plates for the purposes of improved aerial photography capable of differentiating between camouflage and the vegetation that it was designed to imitate. Another WWI application was based on British/Canadian research, which led to what ultimately became known as SONAR, enabling the Allies to combat the rising threat of submarine warfare. The interwar period saw a maturation of such technologies, and a continuation of military-sponsored R&D into ISR capabilities. Based on such successes, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Scientific Research and Development in June of 1941 in order to coordinate scientific research for military purposes during WWII. Vannevar Bush, OSRD’s first director, reported directly to the president and was given effectively unlimited resources to help the nation meet a seemingly unconquerable threat. Many of the notable OSRD innovations were weapons systems, like the famed Manhattan Project. ISR technology did, however, flow from OSRD sponsorship, including innovations like RADAR.

Based on the successful contribution of American science to both advanced weapons and ISR techniques and technologies, Bush, in his famous treatise Science—The Endless Frontier, argued to President Roosevelt for a post-war social compact with the science community that called for the long-term federal underwriting of science, with no strings attached. In return, science would yield unspecified and, under Bush’s mental model of basic science,unspecifiable benefits to society. Standing on this foundation, American basic science enjoyed a post-war expansion in support largely undirected by the state.

At the same time, even greater resources went into mission-oriented science and technology, particularly when the mission had benefits to the national security enterprise. The term “space race,” which is widely thought of as a response to the Soviet Sputnik launch, actually began with the American acquisition of Werner Von Braun and his German compatriots from the crumbling Nazi regime during the last days of the Third Reich, under the auspices of Project Paperclip. From their perch at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, which continues to this day as a center of excellence for the American space enterprise, Von Braun’s team served as the center of a vast space R&D network that simultaneously supported the American drive toward intercontinental ballistic missiles, the quest for space-based military/intelligence reconnaissance, the desire to better understand the science of the Earth’s processes, and ultimately President John F. Kennedy’s goal to land a man on the Moon.

The resources driving these mission-focused programs rapidly eclipsed the resources allocated to Vannevar Bush’s compact with the basic science community. The aerospace-industrial complex managed to institutionalize this resource bias, as everyone reached for space. The coterminous rise of both space-based ISR and space-based scientific Earth observation demonstrate this dynamic quite clearly.

In the wake of Sputnik’s October 1957 launch, the American Cold War rush to space resulted in many scientific successes, as a blinding array of satellites (Explorer 1, Vanguard 1C, Explorer 3, Explorer 4, Vanguard 2D, Vanguard II, Explorer 6, Vanguard IIIc, Explorer 7) demonstrated the ability to observe trapped radiation of various energies, galactic cosmic rays, geomagnetism, radio propagation in the upper atmosphere, solar x-ray radiation and its effects on the Earth’s atmosphere, the near-Earth micrometeoroid environment, and—with TIROS I (Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite)—the Earth’s cloud cover and weather patterns from space using television cameras.

During this same 1957-1960 period, some 12 military/intelligence photo reconnaissance satellites failed to demonstrate operational success, a streak that ended with Discoverer 14 / CORONA 9009 / KH-1 in August 1960. Though enormous resources were spent, the military/intelligence community could only claim the success of a data relay satellite, an electronic intelligence, or ELINT, sensor (the Galactic Radiation Background Experiment), and a two navigation satellites (TRANSIT).

Launches for both scientific and military/intelligence satellites continued throughout the 1960s, leading to the curious episode, in 1972, of the Earth Resource Technology Satellite, later renamed Landsat.

The Divergence of ISR and Earth Observation

Scientific Earth remote sensing and space-based military intelligence ISR have been rivalrous twins from the start. In this light, the Landsat story is instructive. The U.S. Geologic Survey, a bastion of science within the Department of Interior, decided it needed space-based spectral land imaging that could provide a ground truth characterization of the human-scale processes driving change in the Earth’s landscape—e.g., land use and land cover.

In the face of bureaucratic foot dragging, the USGS convinced Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to simply announce their intent to design and launch the first multi-spectral land imaging satellite, though they had absolutely no relevant experience or capability to do so. The ploy succeeded in teasing out the reluctant support of NASA and the Department of Defense for Landsat. And, while at the beginning the National Security Council, the CIA and DOD did not believe that civilians should be capable of observing change on the Earth’s surface, they reversed course when Landsat demonstrated that all of their maps were out of date, and they promptly became the system’s heaviest users.

The absence of vocal support from the defense and intelligence community, along with equivocation from the White House Bureau of the Budget and NASA on the value of Landsat Earth observation, stalled the program. This silence from the defense and intelligence community was a problem, as it led to the serious mischaracterization of Landsat demand while the Carter and Reagan Administrations attempted to privatize Landsat—a distraction that placed the program in suspended animation for over a decade. It was only after DOD’s acknowledgment of the role that Landsat played in Desert Storm that the program received legislative support, a Defense Landsat Program Office, and a comfortable home at the intersection of civilian remote sensing and the national security ISR community. Disagreements over funding and frequent changes in NASA’s overall remote sensing plans saw DOD withdraw from Landsat in 1994. And while the American national security enterprise remained perhaps the heaviest user of Landsat data, the DOD and intelligence agencies have never again served as an advocate for civilian multi-spectral land imaging.

Sources of the Schism

So why did these rivalrous twins diverge in the United States? And why have other countries recognized and embraced the natural synergy between these two domains?

Some might argue that it comes down to “phenomenology,” a term that both Watchmen and Scientists use to describe the nature of the particular sensor that they launch into space, the way it works, and what it allows them to observe. More specifically, some argue that the schism is due to the U.S. defense and intelligence communities’ narrow, though not exclusive, focus on high-resolution, electro-optical imagery—the spy satellite imagery that average citizens identify with.

The Scientists have been first to field a wide variety of complex phenomenologies in space, based on decades of scientific research. In this context, many have observed the limited success of the American national security community to develop exploitation workflows that embrace complex sensor phenomenologies, as they require scientific knowledge. Instead, the Watchmen fall back on what they know best and what they can easily train their workforce to use—e.g., high-resolution, electro-optical imagery.

While doctrine and rhetoric in the national security community have evolved substantially to embrace such sensor capabilities, training and organizational standard operating procedures, by and large, have not. Others would suggest that there exists a culture within the U.S. national security community which views with suspicion any technology that is “not invented here.” Surely, the relatively larger bank account available to the DOD and intelligence agencies enabled them to simply go their own way, with no mandate from the White House or Congress to maximize resources under a “dual-use” regime. The sine qua non of the defense and intelligence ISR community, their high security clearances, also played a major role in this divergence. While a small number of individuals held adequate security clearances (which provided access and standing) to span both the worlds of Watchmen and Scientists, the policy, budgeting, program management, scientific, and technical communities were profoundly divided because of security concerns, real or imagined.

Though the exact source of the schism is unclear, it is quite clear that the Watchmen would benefit greatly if they could manage to exploit the power of the Scientists’ tools.

In the meantime, outside the United States, increasing involvement by other countries and private industry in the remote sensing domain evolved along a strong “dual use” path—e.g. the French SPOT1 satellite in 1986 and the Canadian Radarsat in 1995. It is notable that the dual-use concept is baked into the program name the European Union chose for its Earth observation program back in 1998: Global Monitoring for Environment and Security. A notable exception in the United States that did embrace a dual-use strategy was the CIA’s MEDEA program, a joint CIA-private sector environmental task force involving academics and environmental scientists who were allowed to study environment issues, including global warming, with U.S. spy satellite imagery.

During this same period, the NASA remote sensing portfolio expanded greatly, forming what is referred to as the “A Train” constellation of satellites—comprised of Terra (1999), Aqua (2002), Aura (2004), CALIPSO (2006), as well as EO-1 (2000) on a separate orbit—while defense remote sensing acquisition fell into disarray. Shortly thereafter, a coalition launched the Group on Earth Observations in response to calls for action by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainability and the G8. In this context, many have recognized that collaboration across the international remote sensing community is essential if decision makers around the globe are going to be equipped to deal with an increasingly complex world stressed by natural disasters and crises in health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture, and biodiversity.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. defense/intelligence ISR community made it their goal to achieve active, purposeful “persistent surveillance,” if not globally, then at least over their major geographies of interest. The idea of persistent surveillance is exactly what it sounds like—the goal of “staring” at a particular geography and watching everything that happens—rather than simply collecting an image every so often. The disarray the U.S. defense/intelligence ISR community finds itself in, in terms of technology acquisition, has made this goal seem almost unachievable. Unfortunately, even in its ideal state, this thrust was still very limited in its phenomenologies.

Meanwhile, the global proliferation of both commercial and civilian scientific remote sensing capabilities has put the global community on an aggressive path toward what one might call “passive” persistent surveillance that spans a rich range of phenomenologies. This notion of passive persistent surveillance is admittedly different from the idea of staring at a particular geography. But with the sheer number of sensors globally scheduled for launch over the next decade, it certainly would be difficult to escape their gaze.

This passive persistent surveillance, if successfully coordinated by a vision such as that animating the EU’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program, will have enormous positive benefits not only for the “societal benefits areas” highlighted by the Group on Earth Observations, but also for the United States, Commonwealth, and Coalition security posture. That is, if everyone decides to share and participate in such a framework. Unfortunately, the Watchmen have a very bad history of sharing. Indeed, they have bred much distrust and enmity from their historic international partners who, once dependent on the United States for such support, are now coming of age, launching a vast array of remote sensing resources in dual use frameworks.

Reconciling the Tribes, Solving the World’s Problems

So, here we sit with NRO and NASA at huge respective crossroads. What if the deep pockets of the U.S. defense/intelligence ISR community were applied to the acceleration of this emerging model of dual-use, passive, persistent surveillance? What if the Watchmen recognized that we have reached an historic inflection point where their immense resources might better be spent underwriting the world’s quest to achieve a global Earth observing system of systems that could serve both security and environmental monitoring goals? After all, even our national security leaders have come to the conclusion that understanding and dealing with global climate change is perhaps one of our largest strategic national security challenges. Moreover, perhaps the Watchmen could see this as an opportunity to overcome the ongoing “resolution versus coverage” paradox inherent in reconnaissance systems (e.g., the higher the image resolution, the smaller the geographic coverage of the image), which can only be resolved with cross-cueing between both broad area and high-resolution sensors. In this context, doesn’t it only make sense for the Watchmen to make nice with the Scientists, and possibly even learn something that in turn could help national, indeed global security?

At the same time, Scientists could invest more vigorously in learning about national security missions, and how they might better support them. Leaders at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other science organizations could organize proactively to approach the Watchmen with a unified front—a rapprochement, which effectively integrated the Scientists into the increasingly complex national security mission, without surrendering their scientific mission.

Long gone are the days when the Watchmen could lean on their vast financial reserves, in near complete isolation, setting their own ISR priorities and investment strategies. Long gone are the days Scientists can launch Earth observation platforms and sensors outside of a coordinated national and international strategy. The next wave of our national investment for monitoring the planet—for scientific Earth observation, military/intelligence ISR, and increasingly for commercial and civil applications—will require a stark departure from the decision-making processes of the past.