IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Eyes in the sky’ flying blind?

Experts say there are too few U.S. spy satellites to track all the dangers in the world. And an NBC News investigation has found major problems with the satellites already in orbit. NBC’s Lisa Myers reports.
/ Source: NBC News

The National Reconnaissance Office launched a new ocean surveillance satellite Tuesday morning in California. Experts say it’s sorely needed because there are too few U.S. spy satellites to track all the world’s current dangers. An NBC News investigation has found there are major problems with the old satellites already in orbit.

Many Spy satellite experts fear that the planned next-generation satellite system, which has encountered technical troubles and massive cost overruns and is now years behind schedule, will not be delivered before the old satellites die out.

Intelligence sources tell NBC News that the last launch of a similar ocean surveillance satellite in September 2001 suffered from technical problems making it much less accurate than planned. The constellation of electronic eavesdropping satellites flies in formation tracking warships or steamers controlled by al-Qaida, says Loren Thompson, a military space expert at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.

This is merely the latest disappointment for the nation’s troubled spy satellite program, a system mostly built for the Cold War, which is now aging and severely overtaxed.

“The United States spy satellite program is in something of a crisis,” says Thompson. “Its photoreconnaissance satellites are having trouble keeping up with the threat, and the enemy has learned how to hide a lot of its transmissions from the electronic eavesdropping satellites,” he observes.

Moreover, the targets are no longer static missile silos; they’re terrorists on the move. “Today we’re looking for guerrillas, we’re looking for terrorists. Finding those sorts of targets with our existing satellites is nearly impossible,” says Thompson.

And there simply aren’t enough photographic or eavesdropping satellites up there now to cover all the world’s hot spots. National security sources tell NBC News that U.S. spy satellites were pulled away from tracking al-Qaida in Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. And, on some days, sources say the United States has no intelligence satellites at all watching Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “Our spy satellites are so few in number,” says Thompson, “that even when we have them all trained on a single country, most of the time they’re out of range and can’t see what we need them to look at.”

How can this happen? A former director of the National Security Agency tasked with eavesdropping for the U.S. military and intelligence community blames the agency in charge of building satellites, the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, for squandering resources. “We’re not getting what we could get for the money and we’re probably not getting the performance we used to get.”

The mission of the NRO is to develop national photoreconnaissance and eavesdropping satellites for the U.S. intelligence community. The agency’s satellites have proven critical to U.S. national security in the past and are crucial to the future security of the United States, say intelligence experts. But former NSA director Lt. Gen. William Odom and others say the NRO’s focus on developing intelligence-collection capabilities solely deployed in space has hindered the nation’s ability to gather critical intelligence. “The NRO will spend everything it can in space at the expense of collection systems on the ground, in the air and at sea,” says Odom.

Satellites still have a crucial role to play, but the advancements of new technologies are making their utility far more limited than they once were. In order to eavesdrop on fiber-optic lines, for instance, the lines need to be physically tapped on the ground. These communication modes do not provide signals that can be picked up by spy satellites lurking overhead.

What’s more, a scathing report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board warns that the program to develop the nation’s next-generation imaging satellites, called the Future Imagery Architecture program, is “technically flawed” and “not executable,” plagued by inadequate testing and schedule delays.

The delays are not inconsequential. Intelligence sources and military space experts say the delays in delivery could cause a significant satellite gap. “It would expose us to significant risks because it would interrupt our ability to cover most areas of the world with high-resolution imagery,” says William Schneider Jr., chairman of the Defense Science Board. “And because we are very dependent on that imagery to make intelligence assessments, it would severely weaken the ability of the president to have a full picture of what’s going on,” he warns.

The problems with the next-generation satellites under development, says Schneider, were very significant. “Systems were being designed that could not be built for the price they were estimated to cost.” As a result testing was drastically reduced on the new satellites. “The lack of testing made it impossible for you to verify your systems design, and because you couldn’t verify your systems design, you didn’t know if it was going to work when you completed the construction of the satellite,” he says.

Meanwhile, the NRO insists these problems are being corrected and that $4 billion is being poured into the $25 billion program to get back on track. But government experts aren’t certain the new technology will be up to the challenge ahead, meaning the president may lack crucial intelligence on some of America’s most formidable adversaries. “If we don’t have better satellites and we don’t have them soon, we may not be able to see the next big danger until it’s too late,” warns Thompson.

Lisa Myers is NBC News’ senior investigative correspondent, based in Washington. Doug Pasternak is an NBC investigative producer based in Washington.