In the months before America went to war with Iraq, the intelligence community repositioned its spy satellites to provide maximum coverage of Saddam’s military. There are two types of spy satellites: those that eavesdrop on enemy communications for the National Security Agency (NSA), and those that generate high-resolution pictures for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). All six imagery satellites were trained on Iraq — three using electro-optical sensors and three using radar that can take pictures through clouds. The satellites collected critical information about how Saddam was preparing for war.
U.S. spy satellites provide unique warfighting leverage that no other country can match — as Donald Rumsfeld stressed when he chaired a presidential commission on military space shortly before starting his second run as defense secretary. But today, that leverage is at risk due to severe problems in the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), the program that is supposed to replace Cold War photo-reconnaissance satellites with smaller, more numerous successors. Anne Marie Squeo reported in the Wall Street Journal last Friday that a high-level panel found the program to be “underfunded, technically flawed and not executable.”
That is disturbing news, because most of the imagery satellites flying over Iraq earlier this year were launched in the early to mid-1990s. The spacecraft won’t last forever, and even if they did they are not optimized for a new generation of threats. FIA was supposed to produce a constellation of satellites that would be cheaper to launch while providing more frequent coverage of key targets. The current satellites (which operate in low-earth orbit) are so few in number that even with all of them trained on a country, most of the time none is within range to conduct reconnaissance.
But since the contract for developing the new satellites was awarded in 1999, FIA has become a FIAsco. Costs have mushroomed, forcing the government to add $4 billion to the budget — some of which was taken from more promising programs. Schedules have slipped by a year or more, increasing the danger of a gap in intelligence if older satellites fail. Performance expectations have eroded. The projected weight of the satellites has skyrocketed. There are even doubts about whether the satellites will be able to communicate with their processing and dissemination system on the ground (even though the ground segment seems to be progressing smoothly).
What went wrong? Reporter Squeo captured the basic problem in a startling statistic: eleven of the last twelve competitions for military space systems have been lost by the incumbent. The challenger — who generally has less relevant experience to bring to the table — almost always beats the more experienced competitor. That’s another way of saying the Pentagon is a naive customer willing to believe pretty much anything (as long as it’s good news). Despite being disappointed repeatedly, it always reaches for the same better-faster-cheaper approach that has ruined NASA. In the case of FIA, a conservative but feasible bid was rejected in favor of a more radical offering that the government now concedes was unexecutable. So taxpayers and warfighters end up paying the price for procurement officers who couldn’t recognize the truth — or just didn’t want to know it.
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