Developing government satellites is big business.

Just how much is open to debate. Even professional auditors in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget report they have problems tracking satellite and other space-related programs for publicly acknowledged contracts.

When it comes to classified programs, like those that fund the government’s eavesdropping satellites, there’s no public way of tracking the money, said analysts who cover the industry, such as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “It’s all deeply embedded in the Pentagon’s operational and maintenance accounts,” he said.

But some measurements of the work can be gleaned from the public record.

A computer analysis of some 3 million contract and modification records from 2000 through 2004 shows that U.S. agencies made more than 2,100 deals worth $1.2 billion for satellite telecommunications and related work.

U.S. federal agencies issued about 35,000 contracts and related modifications for general space-related work, worth about $40.2 billion, the analysis showed.

Space work could include software, equipment or other components for any type of space work, including but not limited to satellites.

Military officials acknowledge they are putting a lot of financial resources into space. The U.S. Air Force, in particular, sees satellites as one of its key components of air and space dominance.

Speaking about Space Radar, Gen. Frank Faykes, the Air Force’s budget director, said, “This is a critical capability for our intelligence community.”

The service wants $266 million for Space Radar research and development in 2007, more than twice the $98 million appropriated this year.

For Global Positioning System (GPS) III research and development, the 2007 request of $315 million is nearly four times the $85 million appropriated in 2006.

Air Force Maj. Michael Moyles of Strategic Command says there is likely to be a shortfall in satellite resources required, even with the added GPS capability.

During a briefing at the Satellite 2006 conference Feb. 7 in Washington, Moyles said there will be greater need for satellite services, in a stronger relationship with commercial satellite providers, to meet the military’s needs.

Meeting that need, he said, is going to require changes in the way the military does business. “We’re going to need to streamline the acquisition process.”

The current acquisition process, said Moyles and other military officers, makes it difficult to get satellite resources where and when they are needed. It also makes it difficult to track Defense Department spending on satellite and space services.

The acquisition records analyzed were provided by Investigative Reporters and Editors , an international group of journalists. Using a FoxPro database manager and SPSS statistical software, contractor records between 2000 and 2004 were analyzed. Data for 2005 is not yet available.

About 800 of the satellite-related contracts were for programs listed as “classified or non-discernible,” the records indicate. The total number of all federal government contracts and associated modifications for classified programs gleaned from the records shows an increase to about 446,000 in 2003, from about 281,000 in 2001, an increase mirrored by space and satellite work.

The government changed its reporting methods, and the classified breakdown was unavailable for 2004.

It is impossible to tell from the data how much work in the satellite realm is deemed “black,” or secret, such as the Future Imagery Architecture program. The records do not indicate how much money is flowing to classified satellite work.

The costs of operating some of the Pentagon’s classified spy satellites would easily be at least $5 billion a year, Thompson said.

Opaque Reporting

The Pentagon’s reporting methods don’t make it any easier.

“Tracking the DoD space budget is extremely difficult, since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget,” the U.S. Congressional Research Service reported in November. “DoD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The Congressional Research Service report estimated the total — classified and unclassified — space budget at $19.4 billion in 2003, $20 billion in 2004, $19.8 billion in 2005, and a requested $22.5 billion for 2006.

How much is black, and how much is for black intelligence satellite programs like the Future Imagery Architecture, is impossible to determine with publicly available data.

The computer analysis provided another glimpse into the financial impact of such projects.

The analysis identified 2,175 contracts and associated modifications under the broad heading of “satellite telecommunications” or “radiotelephone.” These deals would cover all satellite development work — some tasks would be for land-based operations of the networks — but the government’s reporting methods make it impossible to precisely determine the in-space satellite operation and development costs.

The largest percentage of contracts or modifications, about a third per year on average, were Pentagon jobs. The Air Force, U.S. Navy, State Department and Army Corps of Engineers each accounted for an average of about 10 percent of the contracts. NASA accounted for about 5 percent.