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Spy Sat Battle Joined On Hill

The Senate wants to build an unproven but technologically attractive reconnaissance spy satellite said to be relatively cheap. The House wants to build a technologically proven but more expensive spy satellite.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and her vice chair, Sen. Kit Bond, support the unproven technology (reportedly developed by Boeing and Northrop Grumman).

As my former colleagues at Space News reported Oct. 6, "the alternative plan [supported by the senators] would develop a larger constellation of cheaper and less-complex satellites." But Bruce Carlson , director of the National Reconnaissance Office, builder and operator of the nation's spy satellites, told the paper that Feinstein and Bond's technology, is “a demonstration of some technology — which by the way we think is very keen — and we are very high on demonstrating that technology. But it is not a solution to the intelligence needs of this country.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, chairman of the House Select technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee, and his House colleagues support proven technologies that will not be cheap but are relatively mature.

"Why reinvent the wheel? If we have technologies that work, why not use it," he said.

But even though Ruppersberger supports Lockheed Martin's approach, he told reporters here at the Geoint conference in San Antonio this morning that he harbors unease about it in terms of both cost and technology. He wants "appropriate testing done" to limit and measure the risk, as well as to see research and development money invested up front to bring the technology risk down.

Finally, while Ruppersburger said he believes an intelligence authorization bill will pass this Congress -- "I think we will get one" -- he made it pretty clear that the House and Senate aren't really very close to agreeing on this fundamental acquisition issue, which must be "fixed" before the bill can get very far.

So far, the issue has been addressed largely via staff -- not in direct negotiations between lawmakers, Ruppersburger said. Given how staunch is the reported opposition of Sen. Bond's staffer,  Ken Johnson, to any solution from Lockheed Martin, that may not augur well for a rapid solution.

[Full disclosure: USGIF, who puts on the Geoint conference, paid our airfare and hotel so we could cover the conference.]

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