updated 4/7/2009 8:43:43 PM ET 2009-04-08T00:43:43

The Obama administration on Tuesday approved the purchase of pricey new spy satellites and will buy more commercial imagery from the private sector to plug immediate gaps in satellite coverage.

The new program will take the place of a satellite program that was being built by The Boeing Co. The Pentagon canceled that project in 2005 because it was grossly over budget and behind schedule.

An intelligence official, who spoke to reporters shortly after the White House approved the program, said the new spy satellites would offer the same capability now on orbit for fear of breaking the budget or delaying the launch.

"We're simply not going to build a program that is based on long-reach technology or unrealistic funding," the official said.

The official, who spoke only on the condition that his name not be used, declined to reveal the budget for the program.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has already complained about the price tag, which he put at more than $10 billion. The official said that figure is incorrect but would not offer an alternative.

The official would also not specify how many spy satellites would be built or when they would be launched. He said it would be soon enough to plug any gaps left by the 2005 cancellation.

However, military, intelligence and industry officials familiar with the program told The Associated Press last week that the program is called "2-plus-2" and calls for building two sophisticated satellites equal to or better than the huge, high-resolution secret satellites now in orbit. Thee officials all spoke anonymously because the details of the program are classified.

At the same time, the White House has also agreed to boost the amount of commercial imagery it buys. It now spends $25 million a month with DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Dulles, Va., buying private imagery that can show outlines of objects as small as 16 inches.

The new contract will be large enough to pay for the construction and launch of two new commercial satellites with the same capabilities as those now on orbit. The new contract will include "guaranteed access" — that is, top priority and the ability to direct the satellites if there is a war or another emergency.

The commercial contract will be negotiated in the coming weeks, the intelligence official said.

Defense giant Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., is almost certain to win the secret multibillion contract for the two new high-altitude spy satellites. It built the spacecraft now in orbit that will be roughly duplicated in the "2-plus-2" program.

The intelligence official acknowledged the possibility that the massive contract could be awarded this year to Lockheed without a competitive bidding process.

Only Boeing has the facilities to build and test a massive satellite. Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, was the prime contractor on the satellite program canceled in 2005.

Boeing spent nearly $10 billion developing the secret satellite but ran into technical problems. the Pentagon pulled the plug after Boeing exceeded its budget by $3 billion to $5 billion, according to industry experts and government reports.

In adopting "2-plus-2," 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 a new class of satellites that would be able to observe targets with better resolution than their commercial counterparts, but would be faster and cheaper to produce than the spy satellites approved by the White House.

The intelligence official said Tuesday at the press conference that officials had determined that the alternate satellites would not have met either military or intelligence needs.

The "2-plus-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 plan will have to win congressional approval. A second intelligence official said the administration is confident it will pass.

The Defense Department spends about $20 billion annually on space programs.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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