U.S. intelligence agencies are capitalizing on North Korea's weekend rocket launch to advance proposals to deploy two new spy satellite systems estimated to cost a total of about $10 billion, according to government and industry officials.
Arguing that the U.S. faces a future gap in advanced, high-resolution imaging capabilities, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week asked the White House to approve plans to build a pair of large, cutting-edge spy satellites along with two smaller, less-expensive models commercially available today, these officials said. The aim is to get the simpler satellites into orbit first to maintain U.S. space surveillance efforts, and then develop and launch the more-capable follow-on constellation.
As part of the debate leading up to the recommendations, intelligence officials argued that commercially available imagery, by itself, wouldn't have been adequate to fully decipher North Korea's activities regarding its controversial rocket, according to officials familiar with the details. While calls for a hybrid commercial-government solution cap four years of studies and bureaucratic wrangling, North Korea's space ambitions gave the U.S. intelligence community a real-world opportunity to cinch its arguments.
"We have a gap [in imaging capabilities] in the future, and we understand that," Vice Admiral Carl Mauney, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said last week, adding that military and intelligence leaders together "have devised a plan to deal with it."
The upshot of North Korea's launch preparation efforts, one senior intelligence official said Sunday, was to "present us with material evidence to show how [imaging] systems are being used right now," and what augmented capabilities will be necessary in the future.