Betty Sapp, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said her agency had purchased launches from rocket maker SpaceX. Credit: David Aleman

WASHINGTON – A U.S. Senate panel is concerned the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the country’s spy satellites, is at risk of program mismanagement and cost overruns.

In its draft of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017, the Senate Armed Services Committee asks the Defense Department’s Comptroller General to begin annual assessments of each NRO program that receives funding from the military intelligence program or is supported by Defense Department personnel. The report would examine the cost, performance and schedule of each program.

“The committee is concerned that limitations on the Government Accountability Office’s access to NRO space acquisition programs have impeded oversight of some of the most costly items the federal government procures,” report language accompanying the bill said. “The committee is concerned that because of the lack of GAO access, NRO programs may be at greater risk of program mismanagement, cost overruns, schedule delays, and avoidable acquisition challenges.”

The committee marked up its version of the NDAA May 12, voting 23-3 to send the bill to the full Senate for a vote as soon as this week.

The language also asks the NRO’s director to provide any necessary information to the Comptroller General in a timely manner.

Because the NRO’s budgets are classified, little information is publically available about individual programs and their adherence to budgets or development schedules.

The concern appears to be limited to the Senate for now. The House passed its version of the NDAA on May 18 by a vote of 277-147 and while the bill asked the Comptroller General to review space acquisition efforts, it explicitly excluded the NRO.

During the GEOINT 2015 conference last June, Betty Sapp, the director of the NRO, presented a slide that suggested 11 of 12 unnamed programs were on budget, with one exceeding costs by about 6 percent.

“I realize acquisition oversight is just a fact of life, particularly for the NRO,” Sapp said at the time. “We have about two-thirds of all major system acquisitions in the [intelligence community] so we know we’ll get special attention.”

During her keynote address at this year’s GEOINT conference May 18, Sapp also touched on acquisition saying, “we’re going to continue trying new, innovative approaches to ensure we’re buying, adapting and developing the best ideas out there.”

Lawmakers have watched NRO budgets closely in recent years. In 2014, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report that said the NRO is buying intelligence satellites at a faster rate than necessary and could save billions of dollars in the next decade by scaling back orders.

When asked by SpaceNews if the House intelligence committee had concerns similar to the SASC’s, a committee spokesman declined to comment.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.