Congress Still Weighing Options for New Imaging Satellites

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WASHINGTON — Two years after the White House announced a plan to buy a pair of large electro-optical imaging satellites based on a legacy design, Congress is still considering a less expensive though unproven alternative to meet defense and intelligence needs, U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said March 15.

A final decision on what type of imaging satellites the United States will pursue is likely to be made during the 2012 appropriation and authorization process currently under way, Ruppersberger, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters after speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center here.

“We’ve been working with the administration and the [director of national intelligence] to see what the costs are and whether or not what we’re talking about is effective,” Ruppersberger said. “There are two different points of view on that issue, and right now I think [Intelligence Committee Chairman] Mike Rogers and I are in the middle watching this debate evolve, making sure that we make the right decisions as far as costs, as far as productivity and performance.”

The future of the nation’s electro-optical spy satellite architecture has been in limbo since the collapse of the optical portion of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)’s Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program in 2005. The government canceled the multibillion-dollar effort after concluding that prime contractor Boeing Defense, Space & Security of St. Louis, which was well over budget and behind schedule on the system, would not be able to turn matters around.

At the same time, the NRO tapped Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems — the longtime incumbent that was unseated by Boeing in the FIA competition — to develop an interim solution based on legacy technology and hardware.

The NRO recently launched one imaging satellite, and it will launch another in two years, Ruppersberger said.

After a long squabble between the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community, President Barack Obama in April 2009 approved a new optical satellite imaging plan. Under what is known as the two-plus-two plan, the NRO would contract with Lockheed Martin to build two multibillion-dollar imaging satellites with 2.4-meter apertures, while the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would purchase the imagery equivalent of two 1.1-meter imaging satellites from U.S. commercial imagery firms.

When the plan was announced, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her Republican counterpart called for the government to pursue a larger number of smaller, less-expensive imaging satellites based on new technology.

The House Intelligence Committee is concerned about the cost and capability of the administration’s plan, but the alternate design the Senate is considering is untested, Ruppersberger said.

“Tarzan’s going through the jungle and he has the vine,” Ruppersberger said. “He doesn’t let go of this vine until he has another vine. We have to make sure that if there is a change in policy … it has been tested and is going to work. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

 

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