Space: Recruiting Replacements


April 26, 2010:  The generals in charge of American space operations are asking that less money be spent on developing new satellites, and spend more on building up a reserve of GPS and communications satellites that can quickly be launched to replace wartime losses. The generals have already convinced the Department of Defense to buy more commercial satellites, rather than much more expensive, usually late, and sometimes cancelled, custom designed military birds. The generals had help from the bumbling bureaucrats who mismanaged these projects, and journalists who headlined the failures.

As a result, last year, the Department of Defense agreed to spend $10 billion to build two military grade photo-satellites, similar to the ones already in orbit, plus two commercial grade photo satellites. This uncharacteristically prudent behavior was forced on them by Congress. The politicians were angry over the failure of the Department of Defense to design and build a new generation of military photo satellites. It was five years ago, that the U.S. cancelled the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) system. This disaster cost the government more than $10 billion, when a poorly conceived and run effort to create a more powerful new generation of intelligence satellites failed. Instead of FIA, the two existing military photo satellites will simply be replaced with similar designs. In addition, the Pentagon will buy two commercial photo satellites, for about $850 million each, to replace what the Department of Defense is currently spending ($25 million a month, and rising) on photos from commercial photo satellite companies. The two commercial birds, which will be owned by the Department of Defense, will be launched in two years.

The Future Imagery Architecture system was to be a new generation of smaller and more numerous spy satellites that would provide more coverage of targets down below, and, because of the larger number of satellites, a more difficult target for anyone seeking to destroy the U.S. spy satellite capability. The project, begun in 1998, was poorly designed and managed. In retrospect, it was doomed from the start because of a lack of technical talent on the government side, and the selection of the low bidder (Boeing) that lacked the experience and capabilities to carry out a job like this.

It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can provide. The government also wants to insure secrets are kept by having complete control over a pair of commercial grade satellites.

The two new commercial birds would take over the task of tracking troop movements, bases and military operations in general. The two new high resolution, military grade, spy satellites designs are improved versions of existing ones. These are used to get detailed (able to detect something smaller than an inch) photos of something the commercial grade images (able to detect something 12-18 inches in size) found interesting.

The troops and military planners are also big users of Google Earth, which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military, commercial grade, photo satellites will eliminate the potential for information leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more capacity to do low resolution jobs.

The people who run the military satellite system are increasingly concerned with wartime needs, and that is what brought out the request for spare GPS and communications satellites. These are relatively cheap, compared to the spy satellites, and most needed if a future war spreads to the orbital zone, and puts some American birds out of action. There is also growing concern about the debris in orbit, and the increasing risk of satellites being damaged or destroyed by these small fragments of older satellites and the rockets that put them there.





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