August 03, 2011

To Close Earth Monitoring Capabilities Gap, First Stop Turning a Blind Eye

Today is part two of our two-day blog launch of our new report, Blinded:
The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for
National Security
. We framed the problem yesterday, but what is the
way ahead?

Christine and I wanted to explore this topic in a bit more depth than we had
in the past because
we don’t think the solutions on offer are quite right. For one, by our analysis
the federal government is relying too heavily on the Global Earth Observation
System of Systems (GEOSS) to provide the data we need. We heard in countless
conversations with officials around the government that GEOSS may not be on track
to deliver all it has promised - especially information relevant for U.S.

Joint work on collecting climate change data is a great platform for
bilateral and multilateral cooperation – a means of securing U.S. interests
that’s in need of more ideas these days. Yet, as we found, not only are our own
capabilities declining, but we’re also not playing the international
cooperation card as well as we could be with regard to remote sensing. Moving
forward, we recommend improving our own capabilities, ensuring consistency in
interagency cooperation and U.S. programs, and thinking more creatively about
working with partner countries as ways to mitigate the loss from the growing
earth monitoring capability gap. Being creative minds, we suggest that United
States complement GEOSS with other bilateral initiatives to sustain a steady
stream of earth monitoring data. Many of these bilateral mechanisms already
exist, so we just need to integrate environmental and climate monitoring into
their practices. 

Of course, innovation in space technology may help lower the costs for
gathering policy-relevant data (which will become increasingly important in
this budget environment). That is why policymakers should look to fund academic
research and public-private partnerships tailored to meet national
security-related earth monitoring needs. Indeed, there is a lot of potential
there. When we were nearly done with our research on this issue, the United
States lost 2 hopeful assets in the March 2011 loss of the Glory satellite
after a failure in its launch rocket. Glory had with it 2 CubeSats
– small, customizable satellites designed by students at two universities that
we have high hopes for as the United States figures out an affordable path for
maintaining its own earth monitoring satellite capabilities. The work is being
done, we just have to get them into orbit.

If nothing else, we hope that our report imparts a sense of urgency for
policymakers. It won't be easy given many of the limitations we take note of in
our report, but the United States needs to act. Solutions can come from the private sector or by leveraging our international partners' capabilities, but we really can't underscore the importance of why the United States must also improve its own capabilities. In the years ahead, more and
more policymakers will by necessity need to include environmental and climate
data into their policymaking processes in order to plan effectively for global
climate change and other environmental challenges that are likely to rear their
head. A lot of this information may not be available from public-private ventures or from our partners abroad. And without a steady stream of environmental and climate data to generate information tailored to meet our unique needs, we'll be blinded to the
exigent challenges that wait.

Photo: This image is an artist concept of a CubeSat
in space. CubeSats are tiny, fully-functional satellites. Courtesy of
Clyde Space and NASA.