WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s tendency to overclassify space programs and intelligence is making it harder for agencies to collaborate with international partners, the deputy chief of U.S. Space Command said this week.
Lt. Gen. John Shaw said that, as recently as last week, a classification issue prevented the command from sharing information with U.S. partners. He declined to provide further details on the incident due to security concerns, but noted it highlights the need for policy change.
“Shame on us if we end up failing in a future conflict because we can’t communicate with our allies and partners as we should,” Shaw said Jan. 24 at the National Security Space Association’s Defense and Intelligence Space Conference in Chantilly, Virginia. “It doesn’t mean we open the doors wide. We’ve got to go through this in a systematic and smart way, but I’m telling you where we are is not at the optimal point.”
Secrecy in the space domain is not a new obstacle for the Defense Department, which has slowly worked to reconsider policies around how it classifies space programs and shares information gathered by on-orbit assets. That could mean talking publicly about threats or new capabilities, or changing a program’s classification level — without removing it altogether — so defense agencies can share information with allies.
During a virtual event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in mid-December, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy, John Plumb, called overclassification “a huge, huge problem” that the department is “really starting to dig into.”
And in a memo last week, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman highlighted it as a barrier to international collaboration.
Shaw told C4ISRNET in an interview at the space conference that, while the department has made some progress addressing classification on individual programs or with certain partners, it hasn’t been broad or fast enough.
“This is going to have to be a whole team effort across the Department of Defense and even the government,” he said. “Some of the progress has to be made at the system and platform level, some of it has to be made at the intelligence level, and some of if has to be made in just what we can talk about at the strategic level.”
Frank Calvelli, who leads space acquisition and integration within the Department of the Air Force, said during the conference that his team is working to break down some classification barriers at the program level.
When the service starts a satellite or technology development program, it typically gives it one of two security designations — unclassified or special access program. An effort labeled as a special access program, or SAP, severely restricts information sharing and, according to Calvelli, makes it hard to integrate across platforms and with other military services.
“We need to integrate our space architecture. And we need to integrate with our air architecture, with our ground architecture and with our sea architecture,” he said. “We have to break that paradigm.”
Calvelli, who previously served as the principal deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said the department is behind the intelligence community in this area. Reducing the number of special access program designations within the NRO, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, improved collaboration and information sharing across the agency, he explained.
“That means we could share across programs, that means we could integrate architecture easily,” he said. “That’s not the case in the DoD. The DoD is about 30 years behind where the NRO and the [intelligence community] are in terms of classification.”
Speaking last week at GovCon Wire’s virtual Space Acquisition Forum, Calvelli said there are several alternatives to immediately designating a program as special access. The Space Force could instead assign a security classification that allows for more information sharing; or a program could remain as special access, but the service could set the data that comes from that program at a different security level.
“Once you’re in a SAP, it’s very hard to get out,” he said at the Jan. 19 event. “It’s like there’s a SAP mafia.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.