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Spy agency softens position on next spy sats

Apr. 15, 2011 - 03:45AM   |  
By Ben Iannotta   |   Comments
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The director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office said he is upbeat about prospects for a resolution to an argument that has raged for nearly two years over the design of the country's next-generation optical spy satellite constellation.

In 2009, the Obama administration outlined a plan to build a few, large imaging satellites similar to those currently in orbit. Lockheed Martin, the incumbent spy satellite contractor, was awarded a contract to start conceptual work on the Next Generation Electro Optical system.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and then-Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., pushed back, telling the administration they favored a constellation of more numerous, smaller satellites for the Next Generation Electro Optical system.

The debate intensified this year when the administration asked Congress to reprogram additional funds for work toward the new constellation, said one participant in the debate.

NRO Director Bruce Carlson has forcefully defended the large satellite plan in the past. This time, he struck a more conciliatory tone at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Carlson acknowledged discussions with lawmakers.

"It's a very open dialogue. It's very respectful," he told reporters in the foyer of the hall. "We have done a lot to evaluate their proposals and I'm sure we're going to come to an agreement on this. I don't see it as a problem at all."

In a 2010 interview with the C4ISR Journal, Carlson dismissed the alternative concept "as a paper system right now" and said troops needed imagery from large satellites to make accurate targeting decisions.

One person involved in the debate called Carlson's statement about a pending agreement "optimistic."

During his speech in Colorado, Carlson did not refer to the next-generation system by name, but he rejected the notion that launching more-numerous satellites would add security, as proponents of the more-numerous-satellite constellation have contended.

"Do you think somebody's that got ASATS [anti-satellite weapons], microwave weapons and lasers is going to worry whether you have two or five satellites?" Carlson said.

He also implied frustration over the lack of a plan to protect U.S. satellites.

"You come into Washington, and you say, ‘You know, we think maybe there's a threat in space so we think maybe we need to do something up in space,'" he said. "‘Oh no, can't do that. That would be provocative. Or it would be escalatory.'"

To bridge the divide between those who favor aggressive action and those concerned about militarizing space, Carlson said he and Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, are working on a "series of options" that would give policy makers choices of action under various scenarios.

The U.S. has been debating its satellite protection policy since 2007, when China launched an anti-satellite rocket at one of its own weather satellites and destroyed it. In February 2009, a surprise collision between an old Russian spacecraft and an Iridium communications satellite prompted the U.S. to improve its surveillance of space, called space situational awareness.

"What I worry about is spending all of our money on space situational awareness just so we can die all tensed up," Carlson said. "So, you got to think this through, and that's something we haven't done," he added. "We're just content to argue."

Before Carlson spoke, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the country's focus on large satellites, which he said are hard to afford.

"In most of our platforms we have worked ourselves into a cul-de-sac where we have the most exquisite platforms in the world, and we have one on each coast, or one on in each orbit. You pick it. We can't keep going this way," he said, without specifically referencing NRO or the debate in Congress.

Carlson said he did not interpret Cartwright's comments as a criticism of the next-generation plan.

"I didn't see it as a jab. We have a program, we're pursuing the program that was a validated set of requirements that the secretary of defense has signed. That's who he works for. That's who I work for," Carlson said, "And the director of national intelligence."

At the start of his talk, Cartwright looked into the audience and thanked the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Regina Dugan, for giving new tools to U.S. troops. He also thanked Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidel Jr., deputy director of Cyber Command, and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. Cartwright said nothing about the NRO or Carlson, who was seated near Dugan.

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