Lack of Intelligence
America's secret spy satellites are costing you billions, but they can't even get off the launch pad
After the launch, the NRO gave no hint of anything wrong. "Once again, the superb NRO government-contractor team has succeeded in doing its part to sustain our country's national security efforts," its press release stated. In fact, an electronic circuit on the satellite had failed to work. Says a Lockheed Martin spokesman: "We fixed the problem. There was no impact to mission ops." Still, he acknowledges, "It didn't work perfectly."
Three current and former government officials tell U.S. News that the satellite is still not up to par. Soon after it failed, Lockheed Martin engineers were able to save the satellite by tinkering with its software. The officials say Lockheed Martin was able to recover about 80 percent of the satellite's capability. But the satellite's crippled performance has resulted in many boardings of cargo ships that Navy officials mistakenly believed were controlled by suspected al Qaeda terrorists, says one of the sources.
Problems plagued a second billion-dollar bird: an advanced imaging satellite--code-named Improved Crystal--that was also built by Lockheed Martin. Both satellites, launched a month apart, experienced problems with their electronic subsystems. The details of what went wrong with these satellites remain classified. The flawed parts came from a Lockheed Martin subcontractor. But those familiar with the failures say a reduction in testing procedures--part of a cost-cutting push adopted by the NRO and inspired by a mantra of "faster, better, cheaper"--was a major factor. The result: more parts defects, less testing, reduced oversight of contractors.
The loss or delay of a single satellite can hinder the U.S. intelligence community's ability to collect key information. The number of photographs the Improved Crystal satellite can take each day, for instance, has been reduced, according to the three current and former government officials. That is a critical flaw because national security officials line up to request photos of everything from enemy military formations to hints of nuclear smuggling to evidence of illicit drug cultivation.
But there are only so many satellites available. Though the number and types of active NRO satellites are classified, Richelson estimates that there are only six to seven imaging satellites and nine to 11 eavesdropping satellites now operating in orbit. Most have an average life span of about seven years, but one Lacrosse radar-imaging satellite that provided coverage over Iraq during the recent war was launched more than a decade ago. "We are getting by now," says Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican and a member of the commission that examined the NRO in 2000. "But we need a more robust system."
America's satellites can't be everywhere at once. During the war in Iraq, eavesdropping satellites were redeployed to cover the Pentagon's theater of operations, but satellite coverage of other trouble spots, in the words of one intelligence official, was "substantially decremented" as a result. Even without the extraordinary requirements of wartime, satellite coverage of major hot spots has been so thin that key developments have been missed. Such was the case in May 1998. American intelligence authorities were caught flatfooted when India conducted a nuclear weapons test; there was no U.S. satellite coverage of the subcontinent at the time.