Editorial: FIA and Funding Priorities

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During a recent conference on the use of geospatial imagery in the national security field, a staffer with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence made some troubling observations about the restructuring of Boeing’s contract with the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to build a new generation of imaging spy satellites.

The staffer, John Stopher, called the NRO’s action on the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) contract the “least worst” of the options available, and said it does little to address the long-term budgetary problem the program faces. All it accomplishes, he said, is it gets the NRO and the troubled FIA program through the 2006 budget year.

“We’ve just been set back considerably in solving the problem,” Stopher said Oct. 31 at the Geoint 2005 Symposium in San Antonio.

FIA is a classified program and as such, public details about it are few. What is firmly established is that FIA is well over budget and behind schedule because of the technical difficulties Boeing has encountered in the satellites’ development. These problems have been publicly acknowledged for some time — Capitol Hill has been concerned for five years, Stopher said — and the specter of a gap in U.S. intelligence collection capabilities between the current-generation satellites and FIA has been raised on more than one occasion.

The NRO recently restructured Boeing’s contract and, in a related move, awarded unspecified work to Lockheed Martin, the losing bidder in the FIA competition and the incumbent contractor for imaging spy satellites. According to industry sources, Lockheed Martin has enough hardware left over from legacy programs to cobble together an NRO-class satellite in relatively short order.

Regardless of the specifics of the restructuring, Stopher’s comments suggest that the Defense Department and intelligence community have taken a typical Washington approach to the FIA problem: do what is necessary to stave off an imminent crisis while deferring a longer-term solution. The likely and utterly predictable result is that FIA will continue to have budget problems down the road, perhaps on an annual basis.

The NRO might argue that its overall budgetary constraints limited its options on the FIA matter. That may well be the case, but as Stopher pointed out, that is part of the problem. There is a ground rule that, as he put it, “space will fix space.” In other words, the NRO could not expect any outside budgetary help to get its imaging satellite program on track.

It is no secret that there is a lot of frustration in Washington these days with military space, and justifiably so — FIA’s problems are more the rule than the exception. It also is clear that big mistakes were made in the execution of the FIA program.

But to insist that funding to fix problems with one space program come out of the hide of other space programs seems more vindictive than productive. It is somewhat akin to jailing an entire family for the transgressions of one member.

This is not to say that funding for all national security space programs should be held sacrosanct. But just as the government should not fund programs simply because they involve satellites and rockets, it should not gut programs for that same reason. Although there are technical and programmatic aspects of space systems that set them apart from others in the intelligence and national security realm, all should be considered together in setting spending priorities for a given year.

In the case of FIA, as Stopher appropriately pointed out, it is a question of priorities. He drew an analogy to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, which on paper was something the government could not afford to do, but in reality — and in the name of humanity — was something it could not afford not to do.

This is not to compare FIA’s funding situation to one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in U.S. history. It is to make the point that space programs, in spite of their expense and high-profile problems, continue to be funded because they provide capabilities that the U.S. military cannot — or in the future will not be able to — do without. The Space Based Infrared System for missile warning is a classic example; the NRO’s imaging satellites are another.

Those who are responsible for divvying up the annual national security budget, of which some $44 billion goes toward intelligence activities, should not be constrained by artificial firewalls erected between categories of programs. In a true meritocracy of national security programs, it is difficult to imagine the long-term health of the nation’s image-collection system being put at risk to maintain the sanctity of these firewalls. But that, Stopher suggests, is what has happened.