Dual Use of Satellite Remote Sensing
Wulf von Kries

Brahma Chellaney, a Professor of Security Studies at the Independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, recently wrote: "The technological revolution has picked up such momentum since the 1980s that commercial innovations are now driving military modernization. Since nearly all advanced technologies now have civil and military applications, the concept of dual-use technologies is losing its relevance".1

This statement seems particularly pertinent with regard to satellite remote sensing. Indeed, when looking at the marketing policies of commercial remote sensing firms like Spot Image (France), Radarsat International (Canada) or newly set-up remote sensing businesses in the US, it becomes evident that these companies are plainly offering to enhance, or even create, the imagery intelligence capabilities of prospective clients. Thus, the Orbimage company, under the rubric of "National Security", advertises the following applications for its one meter imagery: "resource deployment, mission planning, targeting, battle damage assessment, intelligence gathering, and trend analysis". Another US consortium, Space Imaging, in one trade publication was described as "virtually an NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) outlet store".2 Satellite imagery, and the information derived from it, is prone to a wide range of both civilian and military applications. It can be a "force multiplier" for the peacekeeper just as it can for the warfighter. Its dual-use character is patent, requiring no further proof. What necessitates attention is how remote sensing dual uses are being practised, and which policies these practices imply.

Dual-Use Practices

a) Remote sensing dual-use issues have traditionally been treated in terms of factual employment of civil space-borne observations systems for military and more general security purposes.3 The dual-use application of remote sensing technologies in civilian and military systems, both within the space and ground segments, is less explored.4 There is general evidence, however, that commercial remote sensing technology applications are clearly emerging from a government-funded, military heritage.5 This was already the case with LANDSAT, the civilian US land remote sensing system set up by NASA in 1972 which drew on technologies developed under US reconnaissance satellite programs like Corona and the subsequent "keyhole" series.6 Commercial high-resolution systems currently in preparation by US consortia like Orbimage or Space Imaging are only slightly modified civilian replica of earlier US military systems generally developed by the same companies which now are parties to the commercial remote sensing consortia.

Remote sensing technology transfer can also work in the opposite direction. The French Spot system, although established as a civilian enterprise, from the outset was also planned to serve as a testbed for a later military system, i. e. Helios which came into being in 1995. Not surprisingly, therefore, both systems have a number of commonalities, e.g. the spacecraft "bus" and certain subsystems such as the data recorders. From a broader point of view it is interesting to note that the current civilian Spot system in terms of performance is equivalent to earlier US reconnaissance satellites, and that the first generation military Helios system will be matched by the planned commercial high-resolution US systems.

Since the end of the Cold War restrictions on the development and operation of high-performance non-military remote sensing systems have been considerably lessened. Advanced sensor and image processing technologies are now being more freely employed to commercial ends.

Firms are at liberty to devise remote sensing technologies with a double use potential. Military programs are being realized with an eye on possible commercial applications and vice-versa. As the common, integral remote sensing technology base is growing, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between military and civilian technologies. From the producer’s perspective the distinction becomes increasingly irrelevant. Firms will aim at exploiting their concepts and products to any emerging lucrative end. It is only when a technology is put to use that an ad hoc specification is possible. Applied for military purposes a technology may be viewed to be military whilst at the same time appearing to be civilian when employed in a non-military context. Also, a certain technology may be treated as security sensitive under respective policy guidelines, and be regarded as innocuous when a policy change occurs. The dual-use notion, therefore, is not relatable to the nature of a specific technology but to circumstantial employment and prevailing policy assessment, especially under proliferation policy aspects. It follows that the concept of dual-use technologies is spurious, and thus of no systematic utility.

b) The multiple usage possibilities of modern remote sensing technologies are enhanced by the growing accessibility to high-resolution satellite imagery data. Similar as with technology transfer, accessibility operates in both directions.

The times are gone where military remote sensing systems were exclusively reserved for intelligence gathering. With the declassification of American and Russian spy satellite archives at least certain secret data sets are now available to the public sector. This development will not lead to full civilian co-use of essential military remote sensing systems. But the merging of certain military and civilian observation satellite constellations is bound to gradually increase mutual accessibility. This holds for the envisaged merger of the U.S. civil Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES) program and for its military Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). Mutual use may even extend beyond meteorological systems if, as is tentatively being discussed, the French Spot and Helios systems at some time in the future would be combined and operated as a whole. In this context it should also be remembered that the European Observation System advocated by the EUCOSAT Group, and studied by the Western European Union (WEU) in 1995/96, from the outset was conceived as a dual-use enterprise.

This tendency to associate formerly distinctive military and civil observation assets except, of course, those of a uniquely military character, may continue to develop slowly. But it is triggered by forceful motivations, namely to economise investment funds, to ease the operational cost burden, and to glean the private sector’s technological innovations. Interestingly enough, third-world nations seeking to acquire their own observation satellite systems abstain from wasting their resources by the classical parallel, western approach, but instead set up omnipurpose, "neutral" systems. India with its ISRO satellite series is the most telling case in point.

The military, in turn, increasingly seek access to the services and products of civil, commercially operated remote sensing systems. Especially since the Gulf War it has become a habit, if not a routine, to also rely on open observation sources like Spot or LANDSAT for military purposes of all kinds, ranging from reconnaissance over targeting to damage assessment. The usefulness of privately rendered remote sensing services has proven to be so great that defense authorities, both in the U.S. and in Europe, are now aiming at firm arrangements with commercial data suppliers. Thus the U.S. National Imaging Agency by entering into long-term data provision agreements with domestic commercial suppliers forges public-private partnerships between traditionally separate sectors. The WEU’s satellite center in Torrejón , Spain, in addition to Helios imagery seeks open source observation data for its intelligence related activities. An indirect co-financing by the military and the private sectors of the stereo sensor to be placed on Spot 5 has been agreed upon between the French Délégation l’Armement and the company Matra Marconi Space.

Mutual accessibility to remote sensing systems by military and civilian users will contribute to the blurring of formerly clear dividing lines. Private remote sensing systems may function like spy satellites for hire, and systems with a primary military vocation may become competitors in the commercial market.

Dual-use Policy Implications

The emerging remote sensing dual-use practises result from two developments, the one related to the end of the Cold War, and the other pertaining to the end of US-Soviet satellite observation hegemony.

Formerly confined to military objectives, high-resolution remote sensing systems are now also being developed and employed for civil and commercial ends. Formerly under the control of two space powers, namely the U.S. and the Soviet Union, observation satellites in the meantime are becoming available to a steadily growing number of countries. The lowering of secrecy restrictions by the U.S. and Russian governments were deliberate policy acts. The spread of remote sensing capabilities around the world is a generic phenomenon which indicates the beginning of a new, more equitable space era.

Because of the mentioned developments the old remote sensing order as pioneered by the U.S., and as laboriously instituted internationally by way of the UN Remote Sensing Principles of 1986, is in jeopardy. As will be recalled these Principles neither address military uses nor take account of commercial interests. More and more the Principles fall behind a changing reality characterized by dual-use practises, competitive system developments, and in-creasing data accessibility.

It is not clear whether a new policy regime adapted to the changing remote sensing environment can be established, and if so, what it would look like. For the time being states with remote sensing capabilities try to preserve their interests individually and unilaterally. The U.S. being torn between security imperatives and commercial demands pursues a delicate policy of "shutter control" and export restrictions. China continues to shroud its observation satellite systems in secrecy. India proclaims a civilian remote sensing approach while restricting international data distribution and exploiting its space assets for national security purposes. Israel, with U.S. aid, sets up a "technology satellite" system, which in all probability is meant to only serve intelligence needs. Canada, under some pressure from the U.S., in turn will impose certain restrictions on its commercial satellite operator Radarsat International.7 France, so far, has not codified its space policy, but prefers to pursue an ad hoc, voluntaristic approach with respect to the distribution of Spot data. There is little prospect, after all, for these countries and Russia to convene on common remote sensing rules and regulations.

It seems reasonable to predict that despite unilateral countermeasure attempts the proliferation of remote sensing systems and their extensive, multipurpose use will essentially go on unhindered, thus creating a basically free and open data market on a global scale. The only international norms to govern future remote sensing activities might well be trade and commerce oriented, i.e. established within the frame-work of the World Trade Organization. Remote sensing dual-use would then be a notion of the past.


  1. Brahma Chellaney, "Nuclear Disarmament at a Standstill" in : UNIDIR Newsletter No. 39, 1998, p. 12-19 (14).
  2. Mark Stout and Thomas Quiggin, "Exploiting the New High Resolution Satellite Imagery: Darwinian Imperatives?" in: Commentary (A Canadian Security Intelligence Service Publication), No. 75, Summer 1998, p. 1-12 (4).
  3. For an exemplary overview see Péricles Gasparini Alves (ed.), "Evolving Trends in the Dual Use of Satellites", UNIDIR /96/29, New York and Geneva, 1996.
  4. A revealing analysis is given by L.P. White, "Technology Transfer Between Earth Observations Satellite Programs", in: Earth Space Review, October-December 1993, Vol. 2., No. 4, p. 20-25.
  5. Joanne I. Gabrynowicz, "Expanding Global Remote Sensing Services: Three Fundamental Considerations", Paper presented to the International Institute of Space Law at the Third United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III), Vienna, Austria, July 21, 1999, p. 1-57 (4).
  6. Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon and Brian Latell (Editors), "Eye in the Sky. The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites", Washington and London, 1998.
  7. Space News, 12 July 1999, p. 3.

Author's address
Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Porz Wahnheide, Linder Höhe, D-51147 Köln, Germany,
tel +49-2203-601-2489,
fax -65790,

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