12 May 2002



May 13, 2002
Afghanistan Maps for Pilots Were Delayed by Foul-Ups
By JAMES RISEN The New York Times

WASHINGTON, May 10 — Thousands of new satellite photographs of Afghanistan lay idly in storage at the height of the American military campaign last fall, as technological and then bureaucratic failings kept them out of the hands of Air Force pilots desperate for more accurate maps of the remote country, industry and military officials say.

For nearly a month after the bombing campaign began, pilots had to make do with old Russian maps of Afghanistan, because the American intelligence community was slow to figure out how to process and distribute satellite photographs from a private contractor, the officials say.

Once Air Force officers discovered that thousands of the fresh, high-resolution satellite pictures were sitting on CD-ROM's in storage at a military base here, they skirted the bureaucracy and began ferrying the photographs themselves directly to a forward air base in Saudi Arabia. But the episode underscores the way American intelligence's management of spy satellite technology has encountered problems in trying to integrate information from the private sector.

The war in Afghanistan was the first in which a private company was able to provide high-resolution satellite photography, supplementing the work of the government's own spy satellites. Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, Space Imaging Inc., the first company to sell high-resolution satellite photographs on the open market, gave the government exclusive rights to all its imagery of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Pentagon bought all of Space Imaging's photographs of those two countries in part to keep them from being made public at a time when the United States was undertaking its military operations in the region.

In fact, the Pentagon has long feared that the growth of commercially available satellite photography could jeopardize secrecy in American military movements. So when President Bill Clinton issued an order in 1994 allowing for the limited commercial use of such technology, the Pentagon demanded — and won — the exclusive right to buy commercial images of any given region during a crisis, denying others the ability to use them.

Some officials at the Pentagon realized, however, that commercially available satellite photography had uses that not only should be denied foes but also could enhance the American military's own efforts: the technology is perfect for making maps for fighter pilots.

To be sure, the government's own spy satellites were taking thousands of new photographs of Afghanistan last fall. But, Air Force officials say, many of the extremely-high-resolution photographs taken by government-operated spy satellites are not well suited for producing maps of large swaths of a country. The exact capabilities of the government's spy satellites are classified, but they are believed to be able to pick out an object just four to six inches wide from 400 miles in space. With that level of resolution, the area photographed is relatively small, making the images impractical for map making.

By contrast, Space Imaging's satellite cameras can detect only an object with a width of at least one meter, about three feet. That means the camera takes pictures of larger areas, which can be used to make maps.

"As a pilot, there might be one day when you need a very detailed picture of a building in Kabul, and then another day when you need a large and very accurate map of a valley in the Tora Bora area," an Air Force official said. "And you want that map to be current so it shows you things like new power lines. You don't want to suddenly find out about new power lines while you are flying through a valley."

But in the initial stages of the war in Afghanistan last fall, American pilots often had to make do with old maps from the Russians and other sources, even as Space Imaging, based in Colorado, was sending thousands of new photographs to the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a Pentagon bureau that processes and analyzes spy satellite pictures for American intelligence.

Part of the problem was that the mapping agency was not able to handle the digital river of data that Space Imaging was sending. Space Imaging tried to send all its satellite photography by high-speed modem, but the agency's outmoded systems, though compatible with the government's spy satellites, lacked the bandwidth to receive this data, agency officials acknowledge.

So Space Imaging began copying all its photographs onto CD-ROM's and shipping them to the mapping agency. Some of the photographs were then distributed at the Pentagon and other agencies. But for the first few weeks of the war, many of the CD's simply sat in an imagery library at Bolling Air Force Base here — a victim largely of a culture change entailed in dealing with privately generated data, officials of the mapping agency acknowledge.

Finally, three or four weeks into the air campaign, Air Force officials began flying the photographs to an air operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. From there, new imagery was distributed to front-line air squadrons.