Commentary: A Better Satellite Plan


The Oct.

 12, 2009, and Oct.

 19, 2009, editions of Space News contained a cover article and editorial, respectively, that grossly mischaracterized the proposal unanimously put forward by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with regard to the

nation’s future electro-optical satellites. We write to set the record straight.

First and foremost, this issue should not be debated in the media, but given that the

director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and Space News have decided to misrepresent the record, we will set it straight without getting into matters that may harm our national security.

The Intelligence Committee’s goal is to ensure that imagery satellites provide U.S. military forces and strategic decision-makers with the best information possible. The

committee’s proposal does so, while at the same time, providing needed imagery capability sooner, with less acquisition risk, and at less cost than the plan put forward by the

administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The main argument put forward in this publication’s article and editorial was that the Intelligence Committee’s imagery plan is based on demonstration technology that has not been tested. That is wrong on two counts.

First, we recommend acquisition of one more of the large electro-optical satellites currently in production. This continues an active production line, thereby reducing the risk associated with the

administration’s plan to shift to a new satellite design.

Second, our proposal does call for a demonstration program, but only in conjunction with the additional satellite noted above. To suggest that our approach is limited to an untested demonstration — as both the NRO

director and this paper have previously — is misleading at best.

Further, the demonstration project is far from a “pie in the sky” concept. It is based on technologies that have already been tested, and presents less of a technological challenge than the satellite proposed by the

director of the NRO. The government measures risk in two ways: cost and schedule. The

administration’s own assessments of cost and schedule for our technology demonstration and their proposal flatly states that our proposal costs less and will be delivered years sooner.

Finally, the previous descriptions of our proposal ignore the fact that we include the same level of support for the commercial remote sensing industry as the NRO, but with an important caveat. The Intelligence Committee supports the effort endorsed by the Senate Armed Services Committee to prompt the commercial industry to expand its contribution to the intelligence data repository by increasing the capability of its future satellites in the nearer term.

This is not, however, purely a debate over which imagery architecture is more capable.

It is a regrettable fact that the NRO’s recent history in acquiring imagery satellites is marked by several significant failures, including exorbitant cost overruns and very lengthy schedule slips that ultimately led to program termination. We cannot describe the specifics, but anyone familiar with the U.S.

government’s problems with unclassified military satellites can imagine the recent track record of classified systems that have less public scrutiny. This record calls into question the claim of the new NRO

director that the

administration’s current proposal will be delivered on schedule and within budget.

It is also the case that the Intelligence Committee proposal is significantly less expensive than the plan included in the

administration’s request. The cost savings we project have been acknowledged by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Office of Management and Budget. The funds we save could be applied to numerous existing and promising imagery collectors — satellite and airborne alike. Increasing the number of imagery systems has a number of benefits, including reducing the risk of acquisition, launch, or on-orbit failure of the few exquisite systems, while

also providing for greater flexibility and

 reduced time between imaging windows. It also

 is consistent with the policy repeatedly espoused by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that we should reduce our reliance on small numbers of exquisite systems.

So what is the bottom line on the

committee’s multi-pronged proposal? Purchasing one last satellite from the current production line is the least risky way of assuring continued high-resolution imagery and allows us to transition to a set of new, highly capable technologies. It offers the potential to save billions of dollars at a time of declining or flat budgets. And, if executed as envisioned by the

committee, our approach offers the opportunity to expand the satellite industry’s industrial base, a universally recognized problem, across a more diverse set of contractors. The

administration’s proposal for a sole-source approach, on the other hand, guarantees a non-competitive environment permanently.

NRO Director Bruce Carlson claimed in this newspaper that the

committee’s proposal is not a solution. We would argue that it is a superior solution to the one offered by the director of national intelligence

and the NRO. While they claim our proposal cannot meet the demanding needs of the military and intelligence community, they offer no scientific evidence to support that claim. Instead they display a “not invented here” attitude that ignores the new capability that can be brought to bear on this problem without acquiring a new line of “exquisite” class satellites. The

committee remains confident that its proposal represents the best chance for securing the

nation’s imagery intelligence needs for years to come in an affordable manner while utilizing new technologies as they become available.


Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) are chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.