After more than a decade of false starts by the intelligence community, President Barack Obama has approved a new constellation of highly capable electro-optical surveillance satellites.
“When it comes to supporting our military forces and the safety of Americans, we cannot afford any gaps in collection,” Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said in a press statement. “We are living with the consequences of past mistakes in acquisition strategy, and we cannot afford to do so again. We’ve studied this issue, know the right course, and need to move forward now.”
The National Reconnaissance Office will manage acquisition of the system and operate the new constellation. Lockheed Martin will build the systems. They will be roughly similar in capabilities to the existing spy satellite constellation, a senior intelligence official told reporters Tuesday evening. The new satellites should launch within the next decade.
"We simply are not going to launch a program that is based on long reach technology or unrealistic funding," the official said. This is a clear reference to the disastrous Future Imagery Architecture program run by Boeing, perhaps the largest intelligence program ever cancelled. The new program's contract should be signed within months.
The intelligence official denied that discussions between the Pentagon and intelligence community had been acrimonious -- as several participants have said over the last few weeks. Instead, he said that the Defense Secretary and Director of National Intelligence were joined at the hip on this program. President Obama personally approved the program, which the intelligence official said was not uncommon for such significant programs.
In a move that took some observers by surprise, the intelligence community and Pentagon have decided to buy commercial satellite imagery from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. As of last week, there has been no mention of such purchases and some industry observers were extremely nervous about the direction of the talks.
"The decisions about exactly what arrangements will be made with the two commercial providers have not been made," the intelligence official said. They should be worked out in the next few weeks. Both the intelligence community and the Pentagon will buy imagery, as has been the case for years.
As a GeoEye spokesman noted today, his company has already committed more than $30 million dollars to the next generation satellite, known as GeoEye 2, and ITT is already grinding its 1.1 meter mirror.
Ground resolution for pictures taken from this satellite would be a remarkable 9.75 inches.
"We are really encouraged by this announcement and we think this move is the right move not only for defense and intelligence customers, but for the taxpayers as well," said GeoEye spokesman Mark Brender.
Sen. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said in a March 16 letter to DNI Dennis Blair that a joint CIA-National Reconnaissance Office report endorsed the use of smaller, close-orbiting satellites, adding he thought the new constellation was "a poor choice."
"You are asking the taxpayers to pay more for a single article than we paid for the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier," Bond wrote.
Asked whether the program could withstand the ]opposition of such a senior lawmaker, the senior intelligence official said that "we and the secretary of defense plan to support this program wholeheartedly and, with the support of the White House, expect to get this through." A second official went straight to the bottom line and said the intelligence community believed it had the votes in Congress to pass the program.
Several Pentagon and intelligence community sources have said the new system would cost roughly $10 billion, with an early injection of some $3 billion to get it started. The senior intelligence official would not discuss the program's cost other than to confirm that the intelligence community would provide the majority of the funding. That means the Intelligence Community will possess acquisition authority over the new program.
The senior intelligence official also rejected claims by Pentagon officials that the new system was "exquisite" or, in the words of a senior Pentagon official, "a Rolex."
The senior intelligence official said that "if you start talking about costs of these kinds of machines you really need to start with the premise that our mission here is one of the most challenging we do." But in light of that, the government will not be "moving to another plateau of performance. These systems that we are building will be the functional equivalent to the ones we have been buying over the last several years."
The reason for that is two-fold. First, the disaster of FIA marked all those associated with it. Second, as the intelligence official noted, "the industrial base for these satellites is very narrow and very thin" so the country does not want to push for more than it could handle.
Following is today's press release about the new constellation from the Director of National Intelligence:
DNI Blair Announces Plan for the Next Generation of Electro-Optical Satellites
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that the Office of the DNI along with the Department of Defense (DoD) have put together a plan to modernize the nation’s aging satellite-imagery architecture by prudently evolving government-owned satellite designs and enhancing use of U.S. commercial providers.
“Imagery is a core component of our national security that supports our troops, foreign policy, homeland security and the needs of our Intelligence Community,” Blair said. “Our proposal is an integrated, sustainable approach based on cost, feasibility and timeliness that meets the needs of our country now and puts in place a system to ensure that we will not have imagery gaps in the future.
“When it comes to supporting our military forces and the safety of Americans, we cannot afford any gaps in collection,” Blair added. “We are living with the consequences of past mistakes in acquisition strategy, and we cannot afford to do so again. We’ve studied this issue, know the right course, and need to move forward now.”
The joint decision by the DNI and DoD was based on the results of multiple government studies over the past several years, and on the findings and recommendations of an independent panel of former defense and intelligence experts convened by Blair to assess the U.S. government’s review. The studies examined imagery needs, alternative architectures, cost and affordability, technological risk and industry readiness.
Key features of the final plan endorsed by both the DNI and the DoD include:
Government-owned satellites would be developed, built and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office. The unique capabilities of these satellites, evolved from existing designs, would give the nation a timely, and often decisive, information advantage.
The Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community would increase the use of imagery available through U.S. commercial providers. This additional capability would provide the government with more flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges. These less-complex satellites, which are based on technologies already in production by U.S. vendors, would be available sooner than the much more capable NRO-developed and acquired systems – making them especially useful as a near-term supplement and backup to the government’s existing imagery architecture.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would continue to provide the infrastructure that integrates capabilities as well as imagery products – all of which would be available on a timely basis for military, intelligence, foreign policy and civilian users.
Once Congress approves funding for the plan, implementation will begin in the next several months. The commercial imagery elements of the architecture would likely be operational in the next several years. The overall architecture would be fully deployed before the end of the next decade.
The Director of National Intelligence oversees 16 federal organizations that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community. Additionally, the DNI serves as the principal intelligence adviser to the president, the National Security Council and senior policy makers.