Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair have agreed to procure a highly sophisticated satellite imaging system over a less-complex alternative in a move that is already drawing fire from Capitol Hill.

The plan also entails expanding the purchases of imagery collected by less capable commercial satellites, and possibly subsidizing more of them, according to industry sources. It was among the options presented recently by an expert panel tasked with developing a strategy for meeting the
United States
‘ military and intelligence imagery needs into the future, the sources said.

The plan must still be approved by the White House National Security Council and funded by Congress, where it may face stiff opposition. In a March 16 letter to Blair, U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, railed against the choice of the exquisite system, which he said is the most expensive and risky avenue that could be pursued.

Several industry sources said the imagery plan was codified in a March 30 memo signed by Gates and Blair. However, Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for the Office of the DNI, said April 3 that while an agreement on the way forward had been reached, no official documentation has been signed.

The debate over what kinds of satellite imaging systems the
United States
should develop for military and intelligence purposes has been raging for a long time. The Pentagon and intelligence community in 2008 sought to collaborate on a program that would have built less capable, commercial-class imaging satellites, but Congress shot the plan down amid continued squabbling over system requirements and control, and questions about its compliance with the White House’s commercial imagery policy. That policy mandates that the government, including the Pentagon and intelligence community, use commercial remote sensing assets whenever possible.

Bond’s letter said Blair has submitted a report to Congress recommending the acquisition of a multibillion-dollar imaging satellite system, and that the decision was made without the required presidential approval. Blair’s choice is the most expensive and highest-risk option of those considered, and the intelligence community should instead acquire a greater number of less expensive and less risky imagery satellites, Bond said. A copy of the letter was obtained by Space News.

Earlier this year Blair tasked a panel led by former Pentagon acquisition chief Paul Kaminski to come up with recommendations for the future
electro-optical overhead imagery architecture. The previous
attempt to build 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 Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., 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 Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., 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 for the new system to the “incumbent” contractor. 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. Furthermore, the likelihood of the Blair’s chosen design being built on the schedule described by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates spy satellites, “approximates zero,” Bond said.

“While your recommendation is high risk with regard to schedule, it is by far the most expensive,” Bond said. “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.”

Bond also claimed Kaminski’s panel stacked the deck in favor of the exquisite design. He said that in March 11 briefings to the relevant congressional oversight committees, panelists admitted critical capabilities were omitted from a competing design, but the cost of those capabilities was still included, making that option appear less attractive. However, that design actually fulfills more of the government’s stated requirements than the design chosen by Blair, Bond said.

Several industry sources said some of the claims in Bond’s letter were factually incorrect, but declined to be more specific. Calls to Bond’s staff director, Louis Tucker, for comment were not returned.

Some sources said the panel recommended two exquisite imaging satellites and two commercial-class satellites, but others questioned whether the government could afford to do both. Kaminski could not be reached for comment.

NRO Director Scott Large, speaking April 2 at the National Space Symposium here, said budgetary and political pressures on the national security space community are going to make for an extremely difficult decade ahead. He later told reporters he has not been given any direction on what new satellites to build.

“We’ve got a new president and a new Congress, with new players in guidance and oversight,” Large said. “We have an opportunity for everyone in the national security space industrial base to get the message out about the criticality of what we do.

“I’m not apologizing any longer. We’ve learned from the lessons of the past and we are now moving forward. The people making these decisions need to hear all the facts. They need to understand how difficult this is and how expensive it tends to be.”