05 March 2001


New Satellite Images For Sale

The Opportunities and Risks Ahead

Vipin Gupta

September 28, 1994

Center for Security and Technology Studies, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory


"Commercial satellite imaging is entering a new market-the supply of high-resolution imagery. Remote sensing companies that developed imaging technologies for the classified domain are now using their know-how to pursue profits in the commercial sector. The global proliferation of high-resolution imagery is only 2-3 years away. Although the economic success of this remote sensing venture is far from certain, the security implications need to be addressed in anticipation of the prospective deployment of new high-resolution imaging satellites; the opportunities for enhancing national, regional, and international security need to be compared with the risks. After providing the necessary policy history, this article analyzes the technical and political aspects of high-resolution imaging to determine whether this remote sensing enterprise is, on balance, a good idea from a security standpoint. The analysis starts with a shopping guide that describes and critically evaluates the technical capabilities of the remote sensing satellites in development. The article then turns to the technical and operational demands of the buyers, focusing on prospective clients that need satellite imaging for defense and intelligence applications. With an understanding of the developing technology from the user's perspective, the article details how commercial high-resolution imaging can be used to facilitate arms control, assess threats, and support peacekeeping. It also explains how the technology can introduce new problems within existing security environments. In the end, the analysis leads to a case for commercial high-resolution imaging provided the technology is subject to certain unilateral and multilateral policy conditions."