In July, as wildfires tore through the American West, President Joe Biden met with the region’s governors to find better ways to battle the flames. California Gov. Gavin Newsom requested use of military satellites that are designed to warn of missile attacks, calling the orbital fleet “a game changer” for spotting and fighting wildfires.
Biden promised to help. “When this meeting is over,” he said, “I’ll be on the phone with the Department of Defense.”
His call wasn’t the first — or the 50th.
The issue of using secret military gear to aid civilian firefighters arose 35 years ago. It grew as the White House, CIA, U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies sought to establish a national system that warned of undetected wildfires and menacing flare-ups.
The Pentagon allowed tests and a short-lived prototype. But the arrangements were never permanent. The military, eager to safeguard its prerogatives and orbital fleets, was always glad to shut the pipeline down. As a result, officials such as Newsom now have to lobby for emergency access.
But record-setting fires are likely to grow worse and pose grave new dangers that warrant an urgent response, according to proponents of deeper cooperation between officials who combat wildfires and those managing the military spacecraft. The nation can no longer afford endless turf wars and bureaucratic foot-dragging. It’s a matter, they say, of public safety.
“Fighting disasters is like fighting wars,” said Darrell Herd, a retired senior research scientist at the Defense Intelligence Agency who pioneered early orbital tests of wildfire detection. “You suffer if you don’t have adequate warning.”
The parts of the United States destroyed each year by wildfires have more than doubled over two decades. And California’s fires have recently grown rapidly in size. Deaths and diseases are linked not only to blistering flames, but also toxic smoke.
Even so, proponents of using the defense satellites note, the military has no established program that issues firefighting alerts to local, state and federal authorities. They also point out that the Pentagon’s spacecraft, when set against civilian and commercial ones, have repeatedly proven themselves to be superior at spotting blazes.
In an interview, Jeffrey Harris, a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the country’s fleets of spy satellites, called for expanding civilian use of the attack-warning craft “as quickly as possible.” Scientists see the wildfires intensifying, he noted, “so why don’t we let firefighters take full advantage of the technology?”
California, Harris added, “is one of the largest economies in the world. And we’re not going to nip these fires in the bud?” The military craft, he stressed, “can save lives.”
In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service used the spacecraft as an experiment in California, quickly spotting four flare-ups. “I believe we are just beginning to unlock the possibilities,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, then head of what was called the Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center, said of the firefighting test. The Forest Service proceeded to ask that the military spinoffs go nationwide.
Satellite-sharing proponents often cite the military’s GPS as a role model. That fleet of satellites began life in 1978 as a highly classified system for transmitting precise location data to the U.S. armed forces. In the 1980s, civilians gained access. Today, commercial uses include tracking vehicles and sending position data to millions of smartphones.
In an interview, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said the nation needed to rethink the military’s overall role in protecting American society and decide either to shrink its budgets or expand its domestic responsibilities. The new roles, he added, should include the permanent sharing of the attack-warning satellites with the civilian authorities.
“Part of a strong America is having a strong infrastructure that protects our citizens not just from foreign attack, but natural disasters,” Schiff said. “We need to protect people from the growing intensity of these fires.”
Schiff cited a personal encounter. In 2009, a California wildfire grew into the largest in the modern history of Los Angeles County, killing two firefighters, destroying scores of homes and turning hundreds of square miles of green vegetation into blackened remains.
“I remember stepping outside my house one night,” Schiff said. “It looked like lava flowing down the canyons — like a scene out of a surreal horror film.”
The revitalized debate centers on an early generation of attack-warning satellites known as the Defense Support Program, a main participant in the fire experiments. First sent aloft in 1970, the spacecraft orbit 22,300 miles up, over the equator, in sync with Earth’s rotation. Hanging motionless relative to the ground lets them peer without interruption at the same regions.
One satellite can see roughly one-third of Earth’s surface, and three can scan the entirety of the planet. Their specialty is spotting the fiery plumes of attacking missiles. But their infrared sensors — sensitive to heat’s invisible rays — can see much more. Once, a spacecraft was able to pinpoint where an Air Force C-141 transport jet exploded over the South Atlantic.
The military has lofted 23 of the craft over the decades at an estimated cost of $15 billion. Their current numbers and orbital locations are classified secrets. By Washington standards, their operating costs are relatively low. A military contractor was recently awarded a renewal contract for $223 million over 10 years, or $22.3 million a year.
Military craft in geosynchronous orbit have an edge over civilian satellites at lower altitudes that move steadily over Earth’s surface. The spacecraft in lower orbits see particular sites infrequently, often leaving them blind to new fires, sudden flare-ups and shifting flames. The images of NASA’s firefighting program are up to 5 hours old. In contrast, the military craft scan planet Earth every 10 seconds.
In fire season, striking images from satellite companies and the space fleets of civilian agencies are often made public, but those spacecraft typically detect blazes only after they’re too large to contain.
In the mid-1980s, Herd, then at the U.S. Geological Survey, learned that the attack-warning satellites could spot wildfires. Interagency talks ensued. After the Cold War, the White House put the nation’s spy agencies and satellites onto the new job of environmental sleuthing, and the CIA funded a number of pioneering fire studies.
In 1993 and 1994, Herd organized a program of igniting test fires across the United States to see how well the military satellites did. The fuels included brush, trees and grasses. The trials showed that the spacecraft could easily spot blazes even when the flames were relatively small and easily suppressed.
In July 1996, the CIA director boasted in a public speech that his agency had recently helped the U.S. Forest Service battle a series of wildfires raging in Alaska.
Support grew in the Clinton administration and in Congress for a permanent setup. The National Reconnaissance Office took the lead. Three federal agencies that ran three kinds of satellites — for monitoring land use, adversaries and the weather — helped set up the prototype. It was known as the Hazard Support System.
The warning hub came to life in 1999 but died almost immediately because of lack of funds. In lamenting its demise, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, called it “a small program with a huge return.” Congressional investigators blamed poor interagency management.
Nonetheless, the idea of military aid for firefighters kept gaining support. In 2000, the Aerospace Corporation, which does research for the Pentagon, released a detailed study showing that the spacecraft could easily track grassland fires set intentionally across more than a million square miles of African savanna.
In 2010, an editorial in Space News, an industry publication, called on the military to set up a national system of wildfire alerts.
Experts proceeded to ask if civilian satellites — an increasing number of which have sensors that detect not only visible light but also heat rays — might be as good or even better than the military craft.
In 2012, Medea, the CIA’s environmental arm, compared the two approaches in a global test. The target was Brazil and its gargantuan forests, which farmers often set ablaze to clear land. The military’s attack-warning satellites came out on top. Their geostationary positions gave them continuous views, whereas the civilian satellites in lower orbits came and went over hours and days, often leaving them unable to detect new blazes.
On a temporary basis, California began using the military spacecraft to spot fires in 2018. Last year, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, adjutant general of the California National Guard, told reporters that the state was “becoming pretty good at it.”
The main problem was the limited access. Most recently, use of the military asset was set to expire Thursday, at the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. So, over the summer, the state of California mounted a lobbying campaign.
In late July, Newsom made his pitch to Biden. “It’s hard,” Newsom said of the authorization process. “Every year, we fight to get a one-year extension.” The state’s congressional delegation, led by Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a follow-up letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
When the request was approved, Schiff put out a statement saying the California delegation “will continue to push to make this program permanent.”
In an interview, Linda Zall, a former CIA official who for decades led the agency’s fire and environmental studies, said it was “a travesty” that civilian officials faced so much resistance to a modest step that promised to substantially enhance public safety.
The civilian authorities could soon get better options. Startups in Australia and Germany are planning to loft fire-spotting satellites in order to serve fast-growing international markets. And Planet, a U.S. company that built a fleet of nearly 200 imaging satellites, recently joined with a startup to assess forest-fire risks.
But on the military side, things could worsen. The Department of Defense is now facing budget pressures that could end the Defense Support Program and its firefighting aid. The problem arises principally from a new defensive strategy that the Pentagon is racing to put in place.
Starting in 2011, the Defense Support Program satellites were succeeded by a new generation that cost $1.7 billion per spacecraft. Six were scheduled for launch to geosynchronous orbit. By 2015, however, such giant craft were beginning to be judged as vulnerable to enemy attack. China, in particular, was seen as speeding ahead on a wide range of antisatellite arms.
Today, in response, the Pentagon is rushing to build smaller, cheaper, more numerous craft. It sees the vast numbers as greatly reducing the risk of attacks successful enough to knock out vital U.S. capabilities. By 2026, it wants to have in orbit roughly 1,000 satellites, many for attack warning. The issue is considered so urgent that the Pentagon in 2019 set up a new arm, the Space Development Agency, to carry out the sweeping plan.
Experts warn that the shift, and its budget repercussions, may turn the aging spacecraft of the Defense Support Program into prime targets for termination.
One proffered solution is to transfer the satellites from the Pentagon to a civilian agency, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the nation’s weather satellites. Or a civilian agency could simply pick up the military’s operating costs.
Harris, the former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, offered a more ambitious plan. He said the American military had tailored systems of declassification that, if applied, would let information from all its attack-warning satellites — whether old, new or middle age — be shared quickly with firefighters.
It’s a moment, he said, to expand the military’s support.
The wildfire situation “is going to get worse before it gets better,” Harris said. As a matter of public safety commensurate with the growing threat, he added, now is the time to “move the bureaucracy, to tell it what’s important. Let’s take advantage of these very capable resources.”