WASHINGTON — The national intelligence director and defense secretary are asking the Obama administration to approve a new top-secret U.S. spy satellite program that could cost more than $10 billion, according to government, military and industry officials.
The program calls for building two sophisticated satellites equal to or better than the huge, high-resolution secret satellites now in orbit. At the same time, the government would also commit to spend enough money on commercial satellite imagery sufficient to pay for the construction and launch of two new commercial satellites.
The proposal is going to the White House for discussion and a decision was expected as soon as next week, the officials said.
In opting to go with what they describe as the "2+2" program," National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected an alternate satellite proposal from military officials at the Pentagon.
The uniformed military favored developing and launching two new satellites that would be able to observe targets with better resolution than their commercial counterparts. The military maintains its preferred satellites would be faster, cheaper and less technologically difficult to build than the larger satellites envisioned in the proposed "2+2" plan, officials said.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans for the highly classified program.
The "2+2" program is meant to avert a potential gap in U.S. imagery satellite coverage around the world. The sophisticated spy satellites now in orbit are nearing the end of their service life, and replacements must be launched in the next decade to prevent blind spots.
The Defense Department spends about $20 billion annually on space programs.
The new spy satellites would enter service around 2021, said one government official. Spokesmen for the national intelligence director's office and the CIA would not comment on the classified plan.
The "2+2" proposal has already drawn fire from Sen. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Bond has been pushing the intelligence agency to build an experimental system that would provide nearly the same quality imagery at a lower cost.
Industry and government officials said both systems could deliver similarly detailed photos, but the larger "2+2" system could deliver them from more distant orbits than the smaller satellites proposed by the military.
The satellites in use now by the government tend to be high-altitude, expensive units that provide the finely detailed imagery required by intelligence and military officials. The new system backed by Bond and military officials would rely on a new class of more numerous, less expensive, lower-orbiting satellites, but their track record is not yet proven.
A joint CIA-National Reconnaissance Office report endorsed the use of smaller, close-orbiting satellites, according to a letter Bond wrote to Blair on March 16.
"You are asking the taxpayers to pay more for a single article than we paid for the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier," Bond wrote. He called the plan "a poor choice."
The House and Senate intelligence committees have criticized the Pentagon and intelligence agencies' management of their space programs, noting that half the programs have exceeded their budgets by 50 percent or more.
If approved by the White House — and then Congress — the "2+2" program would almost certainly mean a multibillion-dollar contract for defense giant Lockheed Martin.
The only other company with the facilities to build and test a massive satellite is Boeing. Boeing was the prime contractor on the Future Imagery Architecture, a secret satellite system which the Pentagon canceled in September 2005.
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