Spy satellite tally could increase

A plan from the director of national intelligence and the Defense secretary to modernize the country’s spy satellite architecture has the backing of the Obama administration, and the program is expected to win congressional approval, according to a senior intelligence official.

The electro-optical satellite modernization program involves building new satellites that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) would operate and expanding the use of imagery from commercial providers, according to a statement the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released April 7. Under the plan, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would continue to integrate imagery products for government customers.

If Congress approves funding for the satellites, officials said that within the next several months, the program would start working on the commercial imagery aspects, which could become operational in the next several years. They expect the entire program to be deployed before the end of the next decade.

A senior intelligence official speaking on background said that given the backing of the Defense Department, ODNI and the Obama administration, lawmakers are expected to approve the plan.

The program's cost is classified. However, media reports have focused on concerns raised by Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, about the cost of the new satellite system.

The plan's objective is to prevent gaps in coverage if repairs are necessary to satellite systems for which many parts are no longer available, the senior intelligence official said. The proposed satellite constellation would provide equivalent functionality to what the government has now, the official said.

The official said a decision has not yet been made on the acquisition approach for the program. However, ODNI and NRO would oversee the acquisition strategy for the new government-built satellites and a contract would likely be awarded within months. The official added that DOD would handle the procurement of commercial image providers, and the new program would probably involve expanding the government’s agreements with GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.

The official also said the new plan is careful to avoid the problems that plagued the Future Imagery Architecture project, an earlier modernization effort. ODNI said in its April 7 statement that the current plan resulted from studies that examined needs, alternative architectures, costs, technological risk and industry readiness.

“When it comes to supporting our military forces and the safety of Americans, we cannot afford any gaps in collection,” said Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, in the 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.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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