A secret program for developing the next generation of spy satellites is underfunded and behind schedule and could leave the CIA and Pentagon with gaps in satellite coverage critical to the war on terrorism if the program cannot be restructured, defense and intelligence officials said.
The delays and funding problems in the program, called Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), come as the nation's combat and intelligence personnel are more dependent than ever on satellites to track terrorists, detect troop movements and identify nuclear, chemical and biological weapons sites in potentially hostile states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Unless the problem is fixed, according to one senior intelligence official, current spy satellites could stop working before the first next-generation satellite is launched in the next few years, leaving the country with a gap in coverage.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is so concerned about getting the satellite development program back on track that he met Thursday with CIA Director George J. Tenet to review the situation and to discuss how to address it, defense and intelligence officials said.
The senior intelligence official said a "reprogramming" of about $625 million and possibly as much as $900 million, from other intelligence programs this year should be enough to get the program back on schedule so that spy satellite coverage is maintained without interruption. "The tradeoffs are not nearly as bad as a gap in imagery coverage," the official said.
Tenet is responsible for overseeing the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates spy satellites, and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which analyzes satellite pictures beamed back to Earth. The additional $550 million, the official said, is needed to cover expenses at both agencies that were not adequately budgeted when the contract for developing the new satellite system was awarded to Boeing Co. several years ago.
The official denied that the satellites under development are much heavier -- and thus more expensive to keep in orbit -- than Boeing originally proposed. "The FIA satellite is a lot smaller than anything else we've done," the official said, "and the capability is better than anything we've ever done."
One senior Pentagon official offered a much more negative assessment, saying the program most likely faces a "radical restructuring" if it is to avoid being canceled.
The National Reconnaissance Office operates a fleet of satellites thought to consist of three KH-11 Keyhole satellites that take digital pictures, and three Lacrosse satellites that produce radar images. While the Keyhole pictures are of slightly higher quality than radar images, the advantage of radar is that it works at night and through clouds.
The Keyhole and the Lacrosse satellites -- school bus-size spacecraft that orbit the Earth at altitudes of 400 to 600 miles -- are thought to have the ability to depict objects as small as 10 centimeters in length. While they cannot read license plates, they can tell whether a car has a license plate. The satellites' exact capabilities are classified.
The last time the United States bombed Iraq, in December 1998, amateurs who track the orbits of the spacecraft determined that the Keyholes and Lacrosses flew over Baghdad 19 times in the first 18 hours after the attack began. But each of the passes lasted for only minutes, leaving large gaps in coverage. Pentagon and intelligence officials are seeking continuous coverage of a target such as Baghdad in time of war.
In Afghanistan and in the sky over Iraq, drone aircraft such as the Predator have provided coverage for as long as 24 hours at a time, from 25,000 feet. But satellites have advantages over drones. They cannot be shot down, and they have a much broader range that lets them photograph dozens of cities on each orbit.
The next-generation satellites under the FIA program represent an incremental improvement. But FIA is not one of two radical new approaches that some analysts believe the country should be investing in.
One is for building satellites that would orbit at much higher altitudes, giving them more time over a target. This would require the satellites to be even larger than they are now -- with larger lenses and radar antennae -- for image quality to be maintained. The other is for building constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites that could provide virtually constant coverage of targets. Under this system, as one satellite flew over a city, it would be immediately followed by another.
After meeting with Tenet on Thursday, Rumsfeld told Stephen Cambone, the director of defense program analysis and evaluation at the Pentagon, to recommend a strategy by the end of next week for getting the FIA program back on track. One obstacle they must surmount is growing skepticism on Capitol Hill.
Members of the intelligence committees, meeting in House-Senate conference committee, noted in the fiscal 2003 intelligence authorization bill that the program presents a "major challenge" that could jeopardize current spy satellites if the program is not kept on schedule.
In the bill, the intelligence committees said they have provided more money for the program and for alternative systems "if developmental problems exist or persist." They also note a "continuing pattern" in which managers seek more money for their own programs with "little or no regard" for the overall mix of imagery needed to counter terrorists and other national security threats.