Struggling Spy Satellite Agency Tries to Right Itself

By Stew Magnuson
SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for developing and launching the U.S. fleet of spy satellites, is embarking on an ambitious plan to right itself after years of cost overruns and program cancellations.

But two powerful senators have opposed the office’s plans to launch the next generation of classified spacecraft. Personnel issues, namely a shortage of qualified personnel, may also impede progress.   

Nevertheless, retired Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson, appointed last year as the director, vowed to put the NRO back on track. “We are going to turn the corner and we are going to begin to deliver things on time and on cost,” he said at the Geo-Int conference.

 The NRO cancelled in 2005 an ambitious plan to upgrade the satellites that provide high-resolution photos and other imagery to the defense and intelligence communities, called the future imagery architecture. The electro-optical sensors aboard these spacecraft collect data in the electromagnetic spectrum of wavelengths — visible light, infrared and ultraviolet radiation.  The FIA program, which ran into technical difficulties, cost taxpayers billions. How much is not certain since the NRO’s budget is classified.  

Details of its next-generation electro-optical system are also classified. However, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and ranking member, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., have proposed an alternative system, one they said will be less expensive. Both also sit on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense spending.

This disappoints Carlson, who said Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama have all signed off on the plan for the next-generation satellites.

“You would think with that kind of horsepower this would be a pretty simple feat,” Carlson said. “Not so fast. There are some who believe that there are other solutions to this problem.”
The NRO concept will require an upfront investment, but over time it will develop a series of space vehicles that will be much less costly to acquire, be easily modified with open architecture, and modular, he said.

The open architecture will “allow us the ability to insert new technology faster than we have ever been able to do before.”

While not mentioning the two senators’ plan specifically, he said, “Other candidates will certainly feed technology into that future architecture — and it’s important that we do — but they are not solutions to this incredibly complex and difficult intelligence requirement.”

He added that he was “anxious” to work with associated technologies as they come along.

Blair, while also avoiding mentioning the senators’ names, also chimed in on the controversy at the conference.   

Military, intelligence and “other requirements” have all been balanced with the costs and technical risks, he said.

“I happen to know it’s balanced because I have received criticism from virtually every side of the spectrum on it, so I know I have it just about right,” he said.

The senate committee offered an alternative proposal that had a lot of good ideas, but after reviewing it at the Defense Department and the White House, “we realized it just wouldn’t meet the number of critical requirements for intelligence that we sought in the future,” Blair said.

“We came out with the right kind of balanced program for the future,” he added.

Pundits and observers of national security space programs point to the rivalry between the nation’s two largest military satellite builders as being behind the debate over the competing concepts.
Lockheed Martin was the incumbent contractor for the NRO until Boeing won the future imagery architecture contract nearly 10 years ago. After that program failed, the agency asked Lockheed Martin to build a stop-gap system based on legacy hardware, according to Space News, a trade publication.

Both Bond and Feinstein have Boeing interests in their states that would be directly involved in any NRO venture. The company’s integrated defense systems division, which oversees military space, is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. Its space and intelligence systems division and Phantom Works plant is in Seal Beach, Calif. It has a satellite factory in nearby El Segundo.

While Boeing’s contract for the electro-optical technology was cancelled, its work on the radar portion of the program has proceeded.

Representatives for Bond and Feinstein did not return calls seeking comment. Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball said the company does not provide comment on proposals originating from elected officials.  

The NRO has already given Lockheed Martin contracts to carry out preliminary work on the new electro-optical spacecraft, Carlson told Space News. He expects a request for proposals to go out in 2011.

Meanwhile, the NRO has work to do to regain the confidence of Congress, he told conference attendees.

“Some things happened inside Washington, D.C., that led to a couple of significant and very costly failures in space reconnaissance,” he said without mentioning the future imagery architecture program by name. There was a lot of blame to go around, he said. And that included Congress, the joint chiefs of staff, the Air Force, the office of the secretary of Defense and the intelligence community. Carlson said he had intimate knowledge of the failed process, having served on the joint chiefs of staff as the director for force structure, resources and assessment in the early part of the decade when the program was being developed.

“Somebody’s got to take the blame and the NRO took it on the chin. Whether it’s fair or not, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

He alluded to a satellite that he said would be launched on time and on budget before March, while cautioning that space launches are sometimes delayed.

Carlson said personnel issues are a problem at the NRO and throughout the space industry. He has difficulty keeping acquisition personnel for more than two years since most are loaned to the NRO by other agencies. Building a satellite, from the drawing board to launch, is a six- to eight-year process. A typical program might have several managers during that cycle, he said.

A fiscal year 2009 Congressional Budget Justification document for the NRO obtained through a freedom of information act request and posted on the Federation of American Scientists website said 38 percent of the work force would be able to retire by 2013 and 58 percent by 2018. Fifteen percent of the positions are unfilled, and the Central Intelligence Agency is assigning markedly less experienced personnel to the NRO, many of them with less than five years on the job, the document said.

Also in the works is a new charter for the NRO, Carlson said. The first and last one was written in 1964, and included input from organizations that no longer exist, or no longer exist in the form they did 45 years ago.

“It’s time for a new charter. It’s outdated,” he said. “The need for overhead intelligence is significantly different. I’m not saying it’s invalid. It’s different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.”
Carlson also wants to revamp the office’s acquisition process, namely by giving it more power and the ability to say “no” when requirements become too onerous.

“In the past, the requirements process has forced us in the acquisition and development business to commit to things that were pricey, took a long time, and were very difficult,” he said. “At some point during the requirements process, somebody has to stand up and say, ‘As the developer, we don’t think we can do that.’”

One of the organizations that oversees the NRO is the office of secretary of defense’s space and intelligence office. But Gil Klinger, director of the division, criticized the heavy-handed nature of the oversight process in which he participates.

“FIA had more oversight than any NRO program in history.
How do we think that did?” he asked.

“Adding more oversight, some of it profoundly intrusive at times, no matter how well it is intended ... is not going to get us out of the hole we have collectively dug for ourselves.”

Space programs are by nature moderate- to high-risk endeavors, he said. Space may be seen by the public as “been there done that. [But] we all know that there is almost nothing low risk about this business.”

James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, also spoke at the conference about giving the NRO more leeway by reducing “intrusive oversight by staffs” and putting “a bit more responsibility … on the shoulders of NRO and the program managers.”

Carlson also lamented the drastic cuts in the science and technology budget that should allow the NRO to produce cutting edge systems. The research budget has been slashed more than 50 percent during the last five years, he said.

“That is the seed corn of the future. That’s what keeps, young, energetic, hard working engineers and scientists excited, motivated and eager to come to work every day,” he said. That’s not just the NRO, but a problem throughout the government.

“We’re not doing nearly enough of it. Shame on us. Shame on this nation for forfeiting its future like we’re doing in science and technology.”                         

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence, Space

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