WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is making a significant upfront investment to reduce risk on its next generation of classified electro-optical imaging satellites, while an alternative being pushed by two key U.S. senators is based on unproven technology and is not adequate for the mission at hand, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

Bruce Carlson, director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, said the White House-backed system, if approved and funded by Congress, will be delivered on schedule and within budget.

The alternative plan would develop a larger constellation of cheaper and less-complex satellites, according to U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Bond and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee, are the leading proponents of the alternative plan.

In an Oct. 6 interview, Carlson said the approach being pushed by Bond and Feinstein might be a viable future solution but that the technology has yet to be demonstrated and cannot meet the more-demanding requirements of the military and intelligence community.

“This thing over here is not a solution,” Carlson said. “It’s a demonstration of some technology — which by the way we think is very keen — and we are very high on demonstrating that technology. But it is not a solution to the intelligence needs of this country.”

The future of the nation’s electro-optical spy satellite architecture has been in limbo since the collapse of the optical portion of the NRO’s Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program in 2005. The government canceled the multibillion-dollar effort after concluding that prime contractor Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis, which was well over budget and behind schedule on the system, would not be able turn things 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 cobble together an interim solution based on legacy technology and hardware.

In April, U.S. President Barack Obama approved a new electro-optical satellite imaging plan to serve both military and intelligence users. Under the plan, devised by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, the NRO would buy two exquisite-class spy satellites based on existing designs from Lockheed Martin, while the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would procure more data from commercial imaging satellite operators.

Having Lockheed Martin develop the exquisite satellites was advocated by a blue-ribbon panel assembled by Blair earlier this year to study imagery options. Lockheed Martin was put under contract this year to begin early development work on the exquisite-class satellites, Carlson said.

The administration’s plan is supported by the defense appropriations and authorization committees in both houses of Congress. But the Senate’s version of the 2010 Intelligence Authorization bill, which passed Sept. 16, supported developing a larger constellation of less complex satellites. The House has not passed its version of the bill, and in fact U.S. intelligence authorization legislation has not been signed into law for several years.

Bond blasted the choice of the exquisite system in a March 16 letter to Blair, calling it the most risky and expensive option that could be pursued and saying the likelihood that the satellites are delivered on time and on budget “approximates zero.” 

After Obama signed off on the satellite plan, Bond and Feinstein sent a letter to the president that was critical of te decision and advocated their own approach, according to industry sources.

Without mentioning FIA by name, Carlson said basing an operational system on technologies that have not been demonstrated on orbit would be to make the same mistake that led to failure on past NRO programs.

“This is not tried and tested technology — it is demonstration technology, which should be demonstrated,” he said. “Then if it works and demonstrates it’s got some intelligence gathering [ability] and it works up in space, then we need to do the work necessary and the requirements derivation necessary to decide whether it meets the needs.

“In its present configuration, it just simply is not a solution, that’s all. And there’s no path to get it where it would be a solution. It’s just, ‘use this thing because it’s cheap.’”

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said Feinstein and Bond most likely support a Boeing design. He noted that  Boeing’s defense business is headquartered in Missouri and the company’s satellite facilities are in California.

“After the FIA meltdown, it’s going to be a long time before the intelligence community trusts Boeing again,” Thompson said.

Feinstein spokesman David Grannis declined to comment for this story. Bond spokeswoman Shana Marchio did not respond to a request for comment.