The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

KH-11 illustration
No unclassified images of the KH-11 spysat exist, but some believe it bears a strong resemblence to the Hubble Space Telescope. (courtesy Dwayne Day)

Gum in the Keyhole

Congressional hearings are rarely simply about gathering information. Rather, they are a kind of theater, with the members of Congress and the witnesses performing for various audiences. Back in the mid-1990s there was an unusual and somewhat confusing example of congressional theater when several senior members of the intelligence community, including the Director of Central Intelligence, were hauled in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—and C-SPAN—and asked to explain why the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) had spent so much money secretly building a new headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, only a few miles from Dulles International Airport. The NRO had only been public for a couple of years, and now it was on television. Senators also demanded to know why they had not been told about the new headquarters. The House Select Committee on Intelligence countered by claiming that the senators did know about the new headquarters and the money expended on it. The public flogging was actually an attempt to assert Senate authority over intelligence community leaders who were getting a little too… independent. Only a couple of years earlier the very existence of the NRO was classified, and now Congress was holding public hearings about their new headquarters.

That situation may be repeating itself today as the NRO seeks to recover from a disastrous procurement effort and buy a new series of powerful reconnaissance satellites based upon an old design. Or maybe not. We don’t have a way of knowing. Although the intelligence community actually acknowledges the existence of satellite reconnaissance and releases some basic details, there is still too little information available for anybody outside of very privileged circles to understand what is going on.

Congressional hearings are rarely simply about gathering information. Rather, they are a kind of theater, with the members of Congress and the witnesses performing for various audiences.

Earlier this month Senator Diane Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and is also a member of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, threw cold water on the NRO’s decision to purchase a new electro-optical reconnaissance satellite system. The story was broken by Colin Clark of, one of the few reporters who actually scores scoops in this subject area.

In an apparent indication that she intends to block the new procurement, Feinstein stated that “we have extraordinarily serious concerns involving the waste of many, many dollars over a period of years and are rather determined it not happen again.”

It’s a little hard to figure out what exactly is going on, but here is the general background: In late 1976 the NRO launched the first of what was then designated the KH-11 KENNAN series of “Keyhole” reconnaissance satellites. Fourteen of these satellites, built by Lockheed in four blocks, have been launched over the years (see table below). In the latter 1990s the NRO decided to replace the satellites with an entirely new system that was given the unclassified designation Future Imagery Architecture, or FIA. FIA was supposed to be “revolutionary,” apparently achieving similar capabilities in a smaller and lighter package that could be launched aboard smaller rockets. In a stunning upset, Boeing won the FIA contract, ending a near-monopoly that Lockheed held on developing photo-reconnaissance satellites for over four decades.

But FIA was a flop.

One senior intelligence official recently said that “the contract was unexecutable on the day it was signed.” (see “Space policy 101: military space 2009”, The Space Review, June 15, 2009) So the NRO canceled the electro-optical portion of FIA and scrambled to develop a solution. That solution was essentially to divide the government’s requirements into three “tiers”—Tier 1 is high-resolution imagery, Tier 2 is medium-resolution imagery, and Tier 3 is lower-resolution imagery. The NRO chose to satisfy the Tier 2 requirements with a system called BASIC, for Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection. This apparently (we use “apparently” a lot because we just don’t know) involved the procurement of two satellites that could provide imagery down to around 0.25 meters. Tier 3 would be satisfied with commercial imagery from commercial satellites like GeoEye that feed imagery to clients like Google Earth and anybody who wants to spy on their neighbor. They produce imagery down to around 0.4 meters using 1-meter diameter mirrors.

BASIC had a political problem, however—the President had ordered the intelligence community to buy commercial imagery whenever possible, and commercial providers were claiming that they could provide the 0.25-meter imagery. The intelligence community was procuring BASIC because it wanted complete, exclusive, and fast access to the imagery. Commercial imagery providers immediately called their congressional representatives and complained. By last fall the NRO and its masters in DoD and the intelligence community backed down, deciding that instead of buying satellites, they would buy imagery from a broader client base. Marine General James Cartwright, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated recently that he would rather own half of four satellites instead of all of two, because that would increase coverage and resistance to attack.

The military and intelligence communities claim that for a small but important set of target types they require higher resolution imagery than can be provided by these kinds of satellites. Instead of 0.25 meters, they apparently (there’s that word again) require imagery around 0.1 meters. That kind of imagery requires a much bigger mirror—probably around 2.5 meters in diameter—and the rest of the spacecraft is also bigger. FIA was supposed to do this, possibly with a deployable optics system somewhat like that developed for the James Webb Space Telescope.

It’s just not clear what is behind her opposition to the new satellites. Is she challenging the requirement for higher resolution imagery? Or is she challenging the NRO’s ability to procure even a new version of a legacy spysat?

A couple of months ago President Obama decided to procure a new series of electro-optical satellites. What little information that has come out since then indicates that this is essentially the fifth block upgrade to the KH-11 series. The satellites will maintain the same basic design, but benefit from new technology. Technology improvements make their way into military satellites quite rarely. Think about how much better digital cameras are today compared to a decade ago and you can guess that even modest upgrades could have dramatic impacts.

There may be one or even two of the older satellites in production and scheduled for launch in the next several years, but reinvigorating the production line is apparently going to be expensive. It’s also apparently going to take a long time—maybe the better part of a decade—before the next satellite can fly. This makes the program vulnerable to criticism, and that’s where Senator Feinstein stepped in.

The recent DoD Buzz article quoted Feinstein as saying “to make a mistake once or twice is alright, but to continue to make that mistake does not make sense,” a clear reference to the previous FIA fiasco, and possibly also to BASIC. And she added that “we also have information that the lesser tier can also be as capable and have a stealth capability,” Feinstein said, referring to Tier 2 imagery. She also claimed that she had the support of a fellow Republican on both committees.

But it’s just not clear what is behind her opposition to the new satellites. Is she challenging the requirement for higher resolution imagery? Or is she challenging the NRO’s ability to procure even a new version of a legacy spysat? The latter (i.e. her reference to a series of mistakes) makes little sense considering that the NRO could not be any more conservative than choosing to upgrade a spy satellite that has been flying for three decades. The FIA fiasco burned up a lot of good will, but are things really that bad? It seems more likely that Feinstein is disputing the requirement for high-resolution imagery, possibly because commercial imagery satellite companies would like to sell even more pictures to the intelligence community. It would not be the first time that upstart commercial companies whisper in a senator’s ear to sow doubts about what they consider to be the dinosaurs of their field.

Or perhaps this is just political theater. Maybe there is a hidden agenda here that is known to the key players but not to anybody else. It is likely that this fight is only going to happen in secret, and we may only see an occasional quote surface on the pages of DoD Buzz. But check C-SPAN’s schedule, just in case there’s a show on.

KH-11 Series and Successors

NumberLaunch DateDesignationNotes
119 Dec 19761976-125ABlock 1
214 June 19781978-060ABlock 1
37 Feb 19801980-010ABlock 1
43 Sep 19811981-085ABlock 1
518 Nov 19821982-111ABlock 1
64 Dec 19841984-122A/USA 6Block 2
728 Aug 1985LAUNCH FAILUREBlock 2
826 Oct 19871987-090A/USA 27Block 2
96 Nov 19881988-099A/USA 33Block 3
1028 Nov 19921992-083A/USA 86Block 3
115 Dec 19951995-066A/USA 116Block 3
1220 Dec 19961996-072A/USA 129Block 3
135 Oct 20012001-044A/USA 161Block 4
1419 Oct 20052005-042A/USA 186Block 4