Misty and the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA)

A small part of the ‘back’ curtain covering the procurement of the next generation of US spy satellites was briefly lifted in the summer of 2005 at a meeting of the US Congressional House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Because of poor budgetary control in the past by the 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community, the Bush administration appointed John D Negroponte to a new post as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and gave him ultimate control over the funds spent by all the agencies. Negroponte is particularly concerned over two highly classified, very important and very expensive programmes being run by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The first programme is planned to build the next generation of stealthy spy satellites – earlier versions were known by the codename ‘Misty’. These ‘stealth’ satellites are so small that, orbiting in close proximity to ‘space junk’, it is very difficult for enemy radars to distinguish the satellite from the surrounding debris. The number of current ‘stealth’ satellites in orbit is unknown, but it is believed that some have been placed in orbit covertly whilst riding ‘piggy-back’ on another overt satellite launch, or have ridden covertly into orbit inside the Space Shuttle.

The payload these ‘stealth’ satellite carry is unknown, but given their fairly small size in relation to other more overt reconnaissance satellites, I imagine they are usually equipped with an electro-optical payload. Hiding in amongst space junk, if the satellites are not detected they prevent a potential enemy from predicting their orbital path and then hiding any sensitive equipment from the camera. The engineering challenges associated with compressing the necessary technology into a satellite sufficiently small to remain undetected must be huge, particularly as additional capabilities are added to the specification. As a consequence, the budget costs for this next generation of ‘stealth’ satellites has doubled in recent years to $9.5 billion – attracting the attention of the DNI.

The other programme that has attracted the attention of the DNI is the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). The FIA programme plans a new generation of non-stealthy satellites that can gather intelligence using optical and radar sensors, as well as having listening and infrared capabilities. This programme has been running since the late 1990’s with costs increasing on a regular basis – the current estimate is more than $25 billion over the next decade.

The importance of these two programmes in enabling the US to continue to gather high quality intelligence from orbit over the next decade cannot be under-estimated. Nevertheless, when the costs of the programmes rise sufficiently to make a country as rich as the US pause and take stock, it’s little wonder that few other countries can afford to operate orbiting reconnaissance satellites – and those that do in the future will continue to have systems a generation or two behind what $25 billion dollars and vast US technological industrial expertise can produce.