Lawmaker Blasts DNI’s Choice of Satellite Imaging Systems

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair has submitted a report to Congress recommending the acquisition of a multibillion-dollar imaging satellite system that is the most expensive and highest-risk option that could be pursued, according to a March 16 letter from U.S. Senator Christopher Bond (R-Mo.).

The intelligence community should instead acquire a greater number of less expensive and less risky imagery satellites, Bond, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in a letter to Blair. A copy of the letter was obtained by Space News.

On Feb. 5, Pentagon and intelligence officials briefed U.S. President Barack Obama on the possible avenues for pursuing the next generation of U.S. imaging satellites, Bond said. At that meeting, it was determined the decision would have to be made at the presidential level. According to Bond, Blair has decided to acquire through the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) a satellite system with exquisite capabilities that was recommended by of a panel led by former Pentagon acquisition chief Paul Kaminski. Though the cost of the system was not provided, Bond claims just one satellite would cost more than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which Navy documents say carries a price tag of around $4.5 billion.

The decision did not originate at the presidential level, and neither the Defense Department nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff has approved the plan due to its high risk of creating a collection gap, Bond said.

Kaminski’s panel was tasked by Blair to come up with recommendations for the future U.S. electro-optical overhead architecture. The NRO’s previous attempt at such an architecture, called the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), was a monumental failure, with cost growth reaching more than $10 billion before the program was finally killed in 2005. Boeing was the FIA prime contractor tasked with building an electro-optical satellite system and a radar satellite system; the optical portion was canceled, and a contract was given to legacy contractor Lockheed Martin to build at least one optical satellite based on existing hardware and designs.

Bond’s letter did not mention Lockheed Martin by name but criticized Blair’s intent to award the contract to the “incumbent” contractor.

In the letter to Blair, Bond said the recommendation of Kaminski’s panel was unfairly stacked in favor of the exquisite design. In March 11 briefings with the Senate committee and four other congressional oversight committees, panelists admitted critical capabilities were omitted from a competing design, but the cost of those capabilities was still included, making it appear less attractive. However, that design actually fulfills more of the government’s stated requirements than the design chosen by Blair, Bond said.

Furthermore, the likelihood of the design chosen by Blair of being able to stick to the schedule described by the NRO “approximates zero,” he said.

“While your recommendation is high risk with regard to schedule, it is by far the most expensive,” Bond wrote. “Pursuing the highest-cost and most risk-prone acquisition recommendation when lower cost and potentially better alternatives are available is in my opinion a poor choice.”

NRO spokesman Richard Oborn declined March 31 to comment on the matter.