Subject:      House, Senate debate small spysats
From:         [email protected] (Allen Thomson)
Date:         1995/11/15
Message-Id:   <[email protected]>

   House, Senate at Odds over Intel Smallsats
   by John C. Anselmo
   Aviation Week and Space Technology, November 13, 1995, pp.24-25
   [excerpts and paraphrase]

   The House and Senate Intelligence committees are at an impasse 
   over a House plan to order the National Reconnaissance Office 
   (NRO) to begin construction of a small satellite to demonstrate 
   emerging technologies.
   The issue pits those who believe the NRO should follow NASA's 
   example of moving toward smaller and cheaper satellites against 
   the intelligence community and its traditional suppliers, who 
   want to take several more years to prove smallsat technologies.
   Proponents of smallsats say the satellites would be 
   significantly cheaper than the NRO's traditional spacecraft and 
   could be developed faster. That would allow the U.S. 
   intelligence satellite constellation to be upgraded with new 
   technologies more quickly.
   "You're getting a technology freeze point that's only maybe 24-
   48 months [before the satellite reaches orbit] compared to 
   anywhere from five to 10 years for the big systems." [An 
   industry official said.]  He maintains that a satellite in the 
   4,000 - 5,000 range (with fuel) could be "suitable for all 
   missions that the government typically does," including 
   surveillance, navigation, targeting and communications.
   [The official said a smallsat would cost ca. $250M to develop 
   with unit costs about half that, in contrast to the present
   $1G NRO satellites.]
   But NRO's traditional suppliers are arguing that it's still too
   early to begin construction of a smallsat prototype. They say 
   smallsats may never be the optimum choice for some activities, 
   such as large aperture imaging. [Marty Faga, former D/NRO, 
   said that customers' willingness to accept lower levels of
   performance will be a key factor in deciding on smallsats vs
   [The NRO is in the midst of a multiyear consolidation of its 
   satellite architecture, but apparently is going to emphasize 
   large, high performance satellites in order to achieve a 
   lower overall system cost.] 


   It's encouraging to see this question being debated more-or-
less openly, but a couple of things about the above story strike 
me as worthy of note. 

   First, the two points cited in favor of small spysats --
reduced technology insertion times and cost -- are indeed
very important.  Cutting down technology lag is a consideration 
that often gets overlooked, but is likely to become ever more 
significant as the pace of technological advancement continues to 

  Second and however, there's a very obvious omission in the 
list of factors favoring smallsats:  system robustness and 
survivability in time of war, a quality bigsats lack.  If one is 
to believe numerous official statements about the way the U.S. 
spysat system is evolving (and John Pike is skeptical of these 
for reasons I'm sure he's about to explain :-) ), the officially 
blessed Wave of the Future is toward: 

  a few, big, very expensive satellites served by 
  a few, big, very expensive ground stations and launched by 
  a few, big, very expensive launchers out of 
  a few, big, very expensive launch facilities.

   Does this spell opportunity for the bad guys?  The answer is 
left to the reader's imagination. 

   Smallsat systems can do a good deal to get around the 
pernicious adjectives (few, expensive, big) in the list above.  
Although I don't think there is a reliable way to protect any 
satellite from detection, tracking, identification, attack and 
destruction within a few days by a reasonably competent enemy, 
systems incorporating several smallsats at least have the virtue 
of graceful degradation and, potentially, rapid replenishment.  
Given the pace of modern war, that could make all the 

  To ramble on a bit further, why isn't such an obvious 
point mentioned as having entered into the oversight 
committees' discussions?  Beats me, but some logical 
possibilities come to mind, and it would be interesting to get 
comments on them: 

- The Senate and House committees don't know about the 
  vulnerability issue.
  (Considering the many books and papers that have been written on 
  the topic over the last three decades, this seems unlikely.)

- They know about it but have been persuaded that it isn't 
  actually important.  This could be because they think future 
  enemies wouldn't attempt an attack against the planned U.S. 
  spysat system, or because they have been convinced that the 
  problem is being taken care of in the system design.
  (Maybe.  I doubt that the problem really is in hand, but 
  it's possible the NRO has conned the Congress into 
  believing contrafactual assertions; it wouldn't be the 
  first time.  Or perhaps there really is a magic solution 
  that will keep overhead systems safe for the next two decades.) 

- They know about it, believe it's important, but think that if 
  they keep quiet no one else in the rest of the world will 
  recognize that the U.S. has a significant vulnerability. 
  (This seems silly given the obviousness of the problem, but 
  there is a very strong and persistent tendency in the U.S. to 
  view the ROW as being mired in the mud-hut era.) 

- ? (Fill in the blank)