WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has approved plans to buy and launch two commercial-class imagery satellites to complement its classified constellation of spy craft.
The Pentagon will also increase the amount of imagery purchased from private companies operating similar satellites already in the sky.
The decision last week caps months of wrangling between the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Intelligence Directors Office and the Office of the Secretary of Defense over whether to buy and operate commercial satellites, or to pump the money into buying dramatically more imagery from the commercial companies that already have similar satellites in orbit.
The National Reconnaissance Office will buy two commercial satellites for about $1.7 billion. The satellites are to be launched around 2012, according to Pentagon documents obtained by The Associated Press.
But critics of the program say the Pentagon is spending billions to recreate and compete with private companies like GeoEye of Dulles, Va., and DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., which are expected to put four new satellites into orbit by 2013. On its face the decision conflicts with the president's national security space policy, which directs the government to buy as much commercial imagery as possible to help the companies withstand competition from subsidized foreign satellite companies.
An intelligence official said Wednesday that the deal must still survive White House and Office of Management and Budget muster.
Purchasing the imagery from the companies may also be less expensive. The GeoEye 1 satellite was launched on Sept. 6 for $502 million, including the satellite, launch, insurance and four ground stations, according to company spokesman Mark Brender. It is expected to begin taking 16-inch resolution imagery this weekend.
The Pentagon may decide to turn over operation of the new satellites to the private companies, the internal document notes.
The new satellites will comprise the Broad Area Space-Based Imagery Collection satellite system, or BASIC. They will also have 16-inch resolution. They could be used to spy on enemy troop movements, spot construction at suspected nuclear sites or alert commanders to militant training camps. Their still images would be pieced together with higher resolution secret satellites into one large mosaic.
The new satellite system is meant to bridge what intelligence agencies fear will become a gap caused by the cancellation in September 2005 of a major component of the Future Imagery Architecture system overseen by the National Reconnaissance Office. The primary contractor, The Boeing Co., headquartered in Chicago, ran into technical problems developing the satellite and spent nearly $10 billion, blowing its budget by $3 billion to $5 billion before the Pentagon pulled the plug, according to industry experts and government reports.
A single satellite can visit one spot on Earth once or twice every day. BASIC's additional satellites will allow multiple passes over the same sites, alerting U.S. government users to potential trouble, humanitarian crises or natural disasters such as floods.