NEW ORLEANS -- Spooks, suits, generals and geeks gathered here this week to discuss a common goal: an all-seeing, omnipresent set of eyes in the sky to keep an unblinking view of the entire world at once.

Representatives from the military, spy agencies and the defense industry met to find ways to put a new generation of spy satellites in orbit to aid in war, homeland security and spy craft. But talking about Big Brother vision in a hotel ballroom is proving to be a whole lot easier than executing it in orbit. Several of the satellite systems are wrapped in controversy, cost overruns or long delays.

"We need to know something about everything all the time," Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told the gathering of nearly 1,400 at the Geo-Intel 2003 conference here at the French Quarter's edge. "We need an illuminator, throwing into relief all the pictures and activities on the Earth's surface. And then we need to be able to switch on the spotlight, or alert other systems, to dive deep."

"This system has to be never-blinking, never-straying," added Rich Haver, a Northrop Grumman executive and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's former special assistant for intelligence. "Our enemies can never be sure when they're being looked at."

Space-based radar, or SBR, is Cambone's preferred method for fulfilling these aims. America's current imaging satellites can cover only thin slices of the Earth at any one time as the spacecraft pass overhead. A constellation of 10 to 24 SBR satellites, slated for 2012 or so, would cover almost the entire globe at once. Unlike the standard birds now in orbit, whose eyes are blocked by cloud and darkness, the SBR array would use weather- piercing synthetic aperture radar to look below without interruption. What's more, the radar could track tanks, jeeps and planes, giving their locations to American bombers and fighter planes.

In theory, anyway. The program, led by the U.S. Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, was slated for 2008. That's been pushed back at least four years. Even now, the guidelines for developing SBR satellites, which the military would have to give to defense companies before development can begin, are missing in action. Congress has cut the president's $270 million funding request by $100 million. And outside observers aren't impressed with what they've heard about the project.

"Sure, the Air Force may already have designs. But I'm not going to give 10 cents for 'em," Haver said.

"Continuous coverage of everything in the air or on the ground is a solution in search of a problem," said John Pike, director of

"There's an awful lot of time looking at nothing," he said. America's current fleet of spy planes "can focus on an area you're interested in, at a fraction of the cost."

John Werle, a vice president for space and intelligence systems at Boeing -- which is competing for the SBR contract -- calls that a shortsighted view. A global view will spawn entire new industries and government capabilities, just like the Internet's far-flung spread of information.

Federal authorities have something else in mind before SBR satellites arrive. It's called Future Imagery Architecture, or FIA, and it's scheduled for launch in a couple of years. Run out of the ultra-secret National Reconnaissance Office, little is known publicly about the satellite group. But what is known isn't good.

In a September report (PDF), the Pentagon's Defense Science Board called the program "significantly underfunded and technically flawed. The task force believes this FIA program is not executable."

The Pentagon recently had to add $4 billion to a reported $25 billion effort to develop the FIA system. Industry insiders say the project may be as much as three years behind schedule.

That's a charge retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, denied. Given the complexity of the FIA project, "it's not unprecedented to have challenges, from a cost and scheduling standpoint," he said, describing the program as "on schedule."

But just in case it isn't, federal authorities are working on yet another backstop plan -- one that relies on a new generation of commercial satellites to take pictures.

Through a project called NextView, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency is encouraging private companies to develop satellites with a resolution of a quarter of a meter -- two to four times as sharp as the commercial eyes now in orbit. On Sept. 30, the agency plunked down a $500 million NextView deposit on a new satellite from Longmont, Colorado's DigitalGlobe.

The award came as a surprise to the industry, which assumed the largess would be split between DigitalGlobe and its competitor, Space Imaging of Thornton, Colorado. But Space Imaging wouldn't commit to what it felt was an unrealistic late-2005 launch deadline.

Clapper now says he's scrambling to find a comparable pile of cash for Space Imaging, which "can't go forward with our next-generation system without a NextView award," said company Vice President Mark Brender.

In an April 25 national security directive, President Bush called for the government to encourage a strong commercial satellite industry. That, in Clapper's view, means he has to support "at least two major vendors."

Space Imaging's funds may be coming soon. Industry insiders believe the money for the company's new satellite may come from the $87 billion package for reconstructing Iraq, now being debated in Congress. It's sure to be one of many emergency grants the military will be asking for on its way to what Clapper calls "the ultimate eye in the sky."

source: Wired News

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