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Costly Spy Satellite Program Deemed A 'Train Wreck'

Billions Spent For No Result, Program Cancelled

A colossal and expensive bungle over spy satellites that cost the US billions, described by one analyst as a "train wreck," would appear to be a record of how not to build intelligence technology group.

A government project called Future Imagery Architecture was running $2-3 billion over budget that triggered a panel to investigate the project in 2002, according to the New York Times.

The panel reported from records at the National Reconnaissance Office, and suggested to continue on with the projects shortly after the September 11 attacks.

With the new satellites promising improved, more frequent images of foreign threats like terrorist training camps, nuclear weapons plants and enemy military maneuvers, they advised Peter B. Teets, head of the nation’s spy satellite agency to obtain an infusion of $700 million. This was just another band-aid for a project that failed.

After two years, several review panels and billions more dollars the government finally killed the project -- perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.

But an investigation by the Times found that the collapse of the project, at a loss of at least $4 billion, was all but inevitable -- the result of a troubled partnership between a government seeking to maintain the supremacy of its intelligence technology, but on a constrained budget, and a contractor all-too willing to make promises it ultimately could not keep.

"The train wreck was predetermined on Day 1," said Thomas Young, a former aerospace executive who led a panel that examined the project.

The Times' investigation found the satellite agency put the Future Imagery contract out for bid in 1998, despite an internal assessment that questioned whether its lofty technological goals were attainable given the tight budget and schedule.

Boeing had never built the kind of spy satellites the government was seeking, but told Congress it could live within the stringent spending caps imposed by Congress and the satellite agency. The government, in turn, accepted the company's optimistic projections. Despite its relative inexperience, Boeing was given responsibility for monitoring its own work, under a new government policy of shifting control of big military projects to contractors.

According to the Times, the satellite agency, at the same time hobbled by budget cuts and the loss of seasoned staff members, lacked the expertise to make sound engineering determinations of its own. The satellites were loaded with intelligence collection requirements, as numerous intelligence and military services competed to influence their design.

Boeing’s engineers said that the designs were so complicated and elaborate that they said they could not be built. Engineers constructing a radar-imaging unit could not initially produce the unusually strong radar signal as designed.

A gaggle of defective parts, like gyroscopes and electric cables, repeatedly shut down operations. Even what is described as an elementary rule of spacecraft construction -- never use tin, because it deforms in space and can short-circuit electronic components -- was ignored by parts suppliers.

Ironically when the satellite known as F.I.A. was to have been delivered the project was killed, with over runs as high as $18 billion.

"The F.I.A. contract was technically flawed and unexecutable the day it was signed," said Robert J. Hermann, who ran the National Reconnaissance Office from 1979 to 1981. Hermann also led the panel in 1996 that first recommended creation of a new satellite system. "Some top official should have thrown his badge on the table and screamed, ‘We can’t do this system at this price.’ No one did."

Boeing's go-to man, Ed Nowinski, was an engineer who had become a top government spy satellite expert during 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency was in charge of the project.

Nowinski acknowledged that Boeing frequently provided the government with positive reports on the troubled project.

"Look, we did report problems," Nowinski said, "but it was certainly in my best interests to be very optimistic about what we could do."

Boeing eventually fired Nowinski as the project fell apart. A Boeing spokeswoman, Diana Ball, said the company could not discuss classified programs.



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