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Collection Satellites and Imagery Intelligence Explained

Updated on October 4, 2011
Satellites contribute a great deal to our IMINT Collection efforts.
Satellites contribute a great deal to our IMINT Collection efforts.

Imagery intelligence is any form of intelligence that shows us what’s going on with images. Most commonly it comes in the form of satellite photography though these days it could include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Imagery can include a variety of products such as terrain mapping, area monitoring. Just think of Google Maps on steroids. There are also a variety of modes that can be used such as thermal or infrared imaging. Depending on what’s going on, leaders on the ground may be able to request real-time overhead reconnaissance of the area ahead of them. A UAV will actually have a live action camera feed that will be sent back to the tactical operations center and the information can be relayed to the battlefield commander before they walk into an IED or ambush.

A UAV will usually have a specific flight pattern which may take it along main supply routes commonly used by coalition forces, or it may just fly around an area of responsibility providing early warning for anything approaching friendly forces. Satellites are a little harder to request because of the limited number available and the high priority requests that are waiting in line to get their product at any given time. And for some of the higher priority areas or hot-spots, a satellite will stay in geosynchronous orbit essentially hovering over a certain spot on the earth’s surface making it unavailable for many other taskings.

UAVs have actually recently been compromised by Iraqi insurgents, mitigating the advantage they gave us and leveling the playing field by making the same information available to them. One of the reasons that our imagery capabilities are so closely guarded is because we don’t want to compromise our ways and means or technical capabilities. Think about it, if you could tell where a picture was taken from based on the angle and perspective and you wanted to hide what you were doing as part of a counterintelligence or operational security posture, you would know how to go about concealing it. For example, if you have nosey neighbors you may choose to grow a 6-foot hedge around your property. If you discovered a peeping tom, you may ensure that all blinds remain closed. If you have a psycho-stalker ex- you may use blinds and then put lights near the windows so as not to cast shadows on the blinds so that they don’t know how many people are in the house or which rooms have someone in them.

Decoys mitigated the enemy IMINT collection efforts.
Decoys mitigated the enemy IMINT collection efforts.


For those of us that remember the movie Home Alone in which Kevin rigged his house to look like there was a full blown Christmas party going on. In the real world, there are a number of methods used to deceive the enemy’s imagery collection assets. In WWII, there were many decoy aircraft and decoy sites constructed just for show to provide enemy analysts with false information to draw inaccurate conclusions. In fact because having a bunch of equipment that would normally be camouflaged out in the open, they were able to set up decoy aircraft and vehicles, and then leave only a few with poor camouflage perhaps a tank barrel or propeller would be left partially exposed. so that it looked like everything else was still there and hidden from view. Once this was done, the same decoys would be taken to another location and the process repeated. (Owen 2002, 137). This tactic was very effective at preventing the enemy from discerning the true strength of forces which of course effected their analysis and ability to react to the reality.

There was however, one time that imagery really saved us, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

If they can fall for it, so can we...
If they can fall for it, so can we...

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    • Lance Crowe profile image

      Lance Crowe 7 years ago

      Hey Lotus,

      I knew I forgot something.

      Just for you:

      By the way, in regards to sunstorms, I'm shooting from the hip at the moment, but I can tell you that much to our satellite imagery is used more like you'd read the morning paper than you would watch a security camera. There are a plethora of taskings that they could be filling in other places such as the far side of the earth. I'm pretty sure that they've got night vision, thermal and stuff like that. But the point I'm making is that we've already got pictures of the stuff we really need, it'll just be a little outdated before we can get a clear satellite picture again. In the mean time, we've got unmanned aerial vehicles that can actually provide more up to the minute footage and being considerably closer to the ground than satellites, they can get a better picture as they won't be subject to all the solar turbulence that may, if I recall correctly, cause some damage to satellites under the right conditions.

    • Green Lotus profile image

      Hillary 7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very cool Lance. That last line is a real cliff hanger.You must create a direct link to your Cuban Missile Crisis hub!

      Wonder what will happen to Imagery with the upcoming sun storms?