he Space News article by Colin Clark [“NRO Loses Decision Authority on BASIC Imaging Satellite Program,” March 10, page 1] stated that senior defense officials have stripped the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) of its procurement and milestone authority for the Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection (BASIC) satellite program. It appears that the NRO had jumped the gun on initiating a BASIC space hardware procurement, a process that now has been arrested until the acquisition undergoes accelerated due process by a Joint Analysis Team, recently convened at the behest of John Young, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Thank goodness for the cooler heads over at the office of Director of National Intelligence and senior levels of the Defense Department. The NRO has no plausible justification for building and operating an expensive government system when there are commercial alternatives.
Recall that this is the same NRO who brought us the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program, a staggering tale of mismanagement and cost over-runs that was extensively detailed in a November 2007 New York Times article by Philip Taubman, “Failure to Launch: In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids.” Taubman described FIA as “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.”
FIA was, without even a touch of hyperbole, a FIAsco, or in Taubman’s words, a “debacle.” Despite actual expenditures approaching $10 billion, five years of schedule slip, and with projected cost over-runs estimated at $13 billion when the program was canceled in 2005, all that has been launched into orbit so far is some inoperable space junk that had to be shot down in February by the Navy.
So how then did the rogue NRO get the BASIC program onto the drawing board in the first place? It seems that a cornerstone of the justification came from a study submitted July 16 to Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and NRO Director Donald M. Kerr. The report, “Independent Study of the Roles of Commercial Remote Sensing in the Future National System for Geospatial-Intelligence (NSG) Final Report,” known as the Marino Report, was written by Peter Marino, chair of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Advisory Group. Kerr has since moved to the No. 2 position in the Director of National Intelligence office.
The report recommends that the U.S. government build and launch a constellation of mid-resolution satellites, like those proposed in the BASIC program, but perhaps permit commercial entities to either use the satellites for commercial purposes or buy satellites alongside the government, thereby lowering the companies’ satellite acquisition costs. The Marino Report would have the government meet their internal Tier 2 mid-resolution imaging requirements with NRO-built classified proprietary satellites.
To put it plainly, the Marino Report is flawed. It is as if the answer was whispered into the study panel’s ears by the NRO before the study began. And what was the answer? That the NRO needs to build, launch, own and operate lots of satellites just like the ones the commercial remote sensing firms – and – are launching.
Amongst its other weaknesses, the Marino Report makes a number of crucial misjudgments. The report states an overriding requirement that: “The U.S. government cannot rely on or be dependent on any external entity to responsively get needed data.” This statement carries the false implication that only NRO-owned and -operated satellites can meet this requirement. However, fully cleared U.S. commercial firms such as GeoEye and DigitalGlobe can, through service-level agreements specifying tasking priority such as those developed for the NextView program, provide the same assured access to imagery data as the government gets from its own satellites. Moreover, commandeering provisions could be established for times of national emergency.
The Marino Report goes on to assess that the government would face a higher risk in getting its needed capabilities from commercial data providers than it would from its own proprietary birds. Well, if the NRO is going to manage the program then that judgment becomes very dubious, if anyone has learned anything at all from FIA. In the meantime, both DigitalGlobe’s and GeoEye’s NextView satellites, though somewhat delayed, are making fine progress with one on orbit and the other headed for the launch pad. Both systems can perform broad area collection.
The Marino Report makes a key omission when it fails to discuss one of the great benefits of commercial remote sensing data: it can be shared with anyone. While NRO source imagery remains classified and locked behind a firewall, commercial imagery can be readily used by soldiers in the field, shared with allies from any nation, and used by every first-responder in America. This is a benefit of immeasurable importance to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s emerging mission.
And finally the Marino Report makes what appears to be a lame attempt to circumvent repeated presidential policy directives to the intelligence community to utilize commercial remote sensing. National Security Presidential Directive 27 U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Policy of 2003 states that the U.S. government shall “rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs for military, intelligence, foreign policy, homeland security, and civil users.” It further unambiguously defines commercial remote sensing as “privately owned and operated space systems.” The Marino Report has the temerity to suggest that satellite manufacturers such as are “commercial” entities, almost no different from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. Please
Most damning, it is unclear whether the report’s recommendations would leave the commercial remote sensing companies with a viable business model, given their reliance on revenue from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It looks like the NRO is swooping in on the customer, unwilling to cede its long-held turf providing broad-area mid-resolution imagery to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to support mapping.
The NRO has a higher mission in satellite imaging: to provide very high-resolution imagery from a constellation of very exquisite, agile platforms in near real-time. This mission is vital to national security. The NRO is having difficulty meeting this Tier 1 mission, because of its internal disarray as evidenced by spectacular program failures like FIA. The agency clearly needs to expend its monetary resources and management attention on solving this critical national requirement. Why then does the NRO insist upon mounting programs that can be amply fulfilled by the commercial remote sensing industry? It reminds you of Talleyrand’s dismissal of the revivalist Bourbon kings after the French revolution: “They have learned nothing, they have forgotten nothing.”
Some oversight is required here. The NRO simply must learn to accept that the commercial remote sensing industry is very cost effective, can serve the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency exceptionally well, and is here to stay. I implore John Young’s Joint Analysis Team, chaired by Josh Hartman, to accept the inevitable migration of the Tier 2 imagery requirement to the commercial remote sensing data providers under the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency service-level agreements. Any other outcome would contravene both the spirit and the letter of National Security Presidential Directive 27.
Edward Jurkevics is a principal analyst at Chesapeake Analytics Corp., whose clients include the U.S. government and commercial remote sensing firms.