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Poof! Black Sat Program Is Baaack!

Reports of the death of a crucial satellite system known as BASIC have been grossly exaggerated.

The Associated Press and other media outlets reported 10 days ago that $1 billion for BASIC was cut by the House and Senate Appropriations intelligence subcommittees, canceling the program.

Well, as often happens with intelligence spending, the picture is much more complicated and nuanced, according to a senior Pentagon source and a congressional aide.

Here's the money picture:The money is still there, but it now lives in different places and may be used for different purposes than those for which the administration had planned. In the Program Objective Memorandum, there is money -- $700 million -- in the Military Intelligence Program MIP for 2010 and 2011 but not for 2009. The $700 milllion is earmarked for what the intelligence community and Pentagon call Tier 2, a satellite imagery capability band which includes BASIC and high-resolution commercial imagery. The congressional appropriators moved $350 million in the 2009 to the National Intelligence Program. Broadly speaking, the MIP is managed by the Pentagon and the NIP is managed by the DNI.

Essentially, Congress lost its belief in claims by the Pentagon and IC that the country faces a crucial capability gap in two to three years and decided there is time enough to study the issue for six to nine months. So, according to the congressional aide, they took most of the money away and decided to tell military and IC to study the issue and get back to Congress on the most sensible course.

The essential battle here is between the office of Director of National Intelligence -- largely driven by Don Kerr, the principal deputy director -- and John Young, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. The DNI wants more capable satellite and, according to several sources, doesn't really care whether they comply with well-established and longstanding presidential policy which says that commercial satellite imagery must be used first whenever possible.

The Pentagon source and the congressional aide confirmed that the National Security Council and the Office of Secretary of Defense believe the DNI is wrong and that buying a satellite to provide data, instead of buying the data from a commercial company, marks a clear violation of the policy. An industry source made the case simply: "Why buy and build something else when we can do it for you and the policy says that what's you are supposed to?"

One of the things that makes the congressional aide a bit hopeful all this will get solved without too much more delay is that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency now has the lead for BASIC. Since NGA is the primary user of the types of data BASIC would provide, the assumption is that NGA will take a sensible approach to deciding what mix of commercial data and high and exquisite resolution satellites.

Here is the one range of choices that the DNI and OSD can make: Buy BASIC with a 1.1 meter mirror. This would provide the military and IC with area coverage. Buy better commercial data. This would also provide only area coverage. Buy what has been called the "exquisite" system. This would have the highest resolution (the level is classified). This system would only provide what satellite folks call point coverage. In other words, they could see every detail of a pin but not the table on which the pin sits. Buy a 1.5 meter mirror system that would provide only area coverage. Buy something between 1.5 and exquisite. This would, the Pentagon source said, provide both point and area collection. While this last choice sounds fabulous, bear in mind that Space Radar foundered on just such a dichotomy. Providing both area and spot coverage is usually much more technically challenging.

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