A Blind Eye in the Sky?

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Is the Pentagon's vaunted satellite network, which last week helped U.S. pilots and Navy seamen bomb Saddam Hussein's bunker and other targets in Baghdad, in danger of going dark? According to knowledgeable U.S. officials, a highly classified $17 to $19 billion replacement system, supposed to be completed around 2005, has gotten so far off schedule that the military could suffer an "imagery gap" as aging satellites in the current system flicker out. The so-called Future Imagery Architecture program, managed by Boeing Co. — and nicknamed "FIASCO," a pun on its acronym, by some insiders — is also running well over budget even as the aerospace giant has had to scale back some promised new capabilities, officials said. That's led some U.S. officials to charge that Boeing had underbid in an aggressive effort to win the contract. "They wanted it bad, and now they're doing it badly," said one. A Boeing spokesperson declined comment. An official at the National Reconaissance Office, which is responsible for building and keeping spy satellites in the air, insisted that, "over the years, amazingly enough, the reconaissance satellites have lasted longer than their design lives. And I'll just leave it at that."

Despite a recent infusion of federal funds to Boeing, the FIA situation has become so worrisome that Representatives Porter Goss of Florida and Jane Harman of California, respectively the top chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, last week visited Boeing's Los Angeles-area complex to investigate. They also held a closed-door hearing on the subject last week, with more planned. In part to cut wear-and-tear on existing satellites — which one source said are already operating as much as 20% below their original image-gathering capacity — and reserve time for intelligence needs, CIA Director George Tenet last June ordered that virtually all government mapping be done with commercial imagery. In a memo whose tone sources interpreted as reflecting an urgent situation, Tenet ordered that government spy satellites "only be tasked under exceptional circumstances" for mapping.

Boeing is struggling to get FIA back on track, but officials are still worried. As one U.S. official put it: "We're not quite sure how long our existing satellites are going to last. Some of them are beyond their expected life, so it's kind of like you just sit there and you're thankful every day that they work."