WASHINGTON: Worried that proposed cuts to the multi-billion commercial satellite imagery budget may be too deep, the White House has ordered a study to determine how much can or should be cut.

The study is being led by Roger Mason, associate director for systems and resource analyses in the Office of Director of National Intelligence, and Kevin Meiners, acting deputy undersecretary of intelligence for portfolio, programs and resources. It should be done by April.

A close observer of the EnhancedView program, as the commercial imagery contracts with GeoEye and DigitalGlobe are known, said the cuts were proposed by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. The $7.3 billion (if all options are exercised with both companies) program “is not loved by Clapper,” said the source. That is somewhat ironic given that Clapper was the head of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency — and one of commercial imagery’s biggest and earliest backers — for almost five years.

“In one way I find it understandable,” said a former senior intelligence official, “but in another way, curious. Since the program was developed in part to cover gaps in national systems [read the NRO’s spy satellites] and that need still exists, why would they cut it?”

The cuts come in the context of the major intelligence budget cuts first made public at the Geoint intelligence conference, said to be around $25 billion over the next decade. Word from the opaque intelligence community is that Clapper and the Pentagon’s undersecretary for intelligence, Mike Vickers, had to come up with significant budget cuts two months ago and zeroed in on the commercial imagery pie. The cuts were significant, though we don’t how big and haven’t been able to find anyone who will admit to knowing how big they were yet. But they were deep. At the Geoint conference in San Antonio, a senior intelligence official confirmed that a majority of cuts would come out of NGA. That would be consistent with cuts to Enhanced View since NGA oversees those contracts. According to one source, there were even discussions about exercising the space equivalent of eminent domain and taking over the two companies’ satellites, though those reportedly were shot down (think US 193).

But the deep cuts don’t really make sense to the former senior intelligence official, unless they reflect a tilt to the National Reconnaissance Office’s capabilities. The former intelligence official said the NRO view is that the imagery collected by the two companies is “something we can do in our spare time, but the problem is they have no spare time.” Creating the detailed maps that EnhancedView makes possible is crucial for military and intelligence pilots, as well as for senior planners in the Pentagon and intelligence community. The NRO can produce much better maps, because of its much more expensive higher resolution satellites, so the bias among many intelligence officials is to rely on NRO data rather than on the companies.

But the former senior intelligence official said the NRO almost never has what could be called down time to handle that mission, even as the country faces the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pulling US troops out will not affect the need for either commercial imagery or the NRO’s more exquisite products.

“Forget the war. This is a worldwide constant update problem,” the official said. “One thing that is being forgotten while the debate is going on. When something blows up — war, natural disaster or an extraction — you never have enough capacity because you’re dealing with a fixed point and you only have so many national [NRO] assets over the one area.”

Intelligence officials “trivialize that, but they haven’t had aides to the president calling up, asking when they are going to get some new pictures,” said the former official. On top of the operational needs, there also looms the fact that the Obama Administration’s own national space policy says we will use commercial imagery “to the maximum practical extent.”
Taken together, those the operational and policy points noted by the senior intelligence official may blunt Clapper’s push. Having ordered the study, the White House is clearly already concerned.