Editorial: Let the NRO Get Started

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The U.S. government’s plan for a new generation of sophisticated electro-optical intelligence-gathering satellites continues to face opposition from a pair of powerful U.S. senators who are pushing what they say is a lower-cost, less risky alternative.

In part because of the classified nature of the program, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) have not publicly offered specifics of their preferred alternative. But as chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sens. Feinstein and Bond are in position to make life difficult for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) as it seeks to get moving on a critical national capability. Both lawmakers also serve on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

The government’s plan, settled on earlier this year by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and subsequently approved by President Barack Obama, is known informally as 2-plus-2. Based on the recommendations of an independent expert panel, it entails buying two highly capable satellites from Lockheed Martin while relying on commercial imagery providers for routine or less challenging collection requirements.

Lockheed Martin is doing what the NRO refers to as pre-acquisition work on the Next-Generation Optical system, and the agency envisions awarding the company a full-scale development contract in late 2011. Intelligence officials have said Lockheed Martin, with a more than 40-year legacy of building optical spy satellites for the NRO, is the only company truly qualified to do the work.

Lockheed Martin’s virtual lock on this business appeared to have been broken a decade ago, when Boeing Co. stunned the incumbent by winning the contract to build the NRO’s next generation of optical and radar imaging satellites under a program dubbed the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). But FIA proved to be a technical bridge too far, and the NRO, after spending billions of dollars, canceled the optical portion of the program in 2005, putting Lockheed Martin under contract to build an interim system based on legacy technology and hardware.

In a letter sent to Mr. Blair in April, Sen. Bond, who has been the most vocal in opposing the Next-Generation Optical system, said the intelligence community is inviting more trouble with its plan. He characterized the proposal by the incumbent contractor — Lockheed Martin — as the “highest cost and most risk-prone” option and said the chance that the system would be delivered on schedule “approximates zero.”

Sen. Bond said there was a better, lower-cost alternative available that would enable the NRO to deploy more sensors, albeit slightly less capable ones. In theory, the senator’s position is not unreasonable: it represents one side of the legitimate quantity-versus-quality debate that has been going on in national security space circles for more than a decade.

But while Sen. Bond may have the best of intentions, he has the wrong prescription.

According to NRO Director Bruce Carlson, Sen. Bond’s preferred alternative is based on a technology that hasn’t been tested in space. In an interview, Mr. Carlson also said the option simply does not meet the established needs of the military or intelligence community. Knowledgeable sources agreed with Mr. Carlson’s assessment.

It goes without saying that there is risk inherent in any technology that has not yet been demonstrated in space. While those familiar with Mr. Bond’s preferred alternative, including Mr. Carlson, believe the technology is viable and promising, they said it must be proven before it can be adopted for operational use.

The Next-Generation Optical system, meanwhile, though sometimes characterized as exquisite, is by no means exotic. It is an evolutionary upgrade of the systems Lockheed Martin has been building for decades, with some performance enhancements and replacements for obsolete components. It is by no stretch of the imagination a reprise of FIA, a completely new system designed by a contractor with a thin track record developing highly capable optical-imaging satellites.

Mr. Carlson says the NRO will make a significant upfront investment to reduce risks associated with the introduction of new components in the evolved system. In fact, plans do not call for awarding the satellite construction contract until late 2011. This by no means guarantees the Next-Generation Optical satellites will be delivered on schedule — these are complex space systems, after all — but the approach is reasonable and prudent, and shows that the NRO is learning from past mistakes.

But the NRO needs congressional approval to continue investing in that risk reduction work. Time is of the essence here: The FIA satellites were supposed to have begun launching in 2005, and while the Lockheed Martin-built interim system likely has relieved some of the schedule pressure to deploy a follow-on system, it is fair to assume a gap in some of the nation’s most critical intelligence gathering capabilities is looming.

Pushing the technological envelope is expected of the NRO; clearly the agency should continue researching the collection approach advocated by Sens. Bond and Feinstein, as it could one day be the foundation of the U.S. overhead imagery architecture. But the NRO has a more pressing imperative — ensuring that U.S. military forces and strategic decision-makers have access to the best possible intelligence information. On this count, the Next-Generation Optical system wins hands down, which is why Congress should approve it without further ado.

NRO