With our dependence on space-based systems growing, and threats to them accelerating nearly as fast, the new U.S. Space Force is good for the country. A military service fighting to maintain our vital on-orbit capabilities, even while they are under attack, will be a key member of the joint war-fighting team.
Gen. John “Jay” Raymond and his staff are working a wide range of tasks to stand up the Space Force. They include important ongoing responsibilities such as space situational awareness and commercial satellite contracting, as well as planning for and exercising defensive and offensive missions in wartime. However, their efforts are made less efficient and effective by one huge impediment: the over-classification and compartmentation of both program and intelligence space information.
Overcoming this impediment will require a personal push from the entire leadership of the Department of Defense, led by the secretary, as well as the intelligence community, led by the director of national intelligence.
Those of us who have served in high-level defense and intelligence positions have been aware of the problems for years, but neither we nor those who came before and after us have sustained the effort necessary for reform. The rules and procedures for handling sensitive information about space systems were set early in the space race when the sensitive nature of the nation’s efforts against an existential foe created a “norm” of compartmentalized, classified programs at the highest levels.
Whatever the validity of the reasons at the time, by now the partitioned nature of space program classification still remains and far exceeds that of other equally sensitive domains — air, land, sea, undersea and cyber. There are at least three major baleful impacts of the current system:
Duplication with space acquisition programs: Because of the multilayered security compartmentation in the space domain, in many cases the same tech-development problems are solved multiple times, sometimes even within the same organization! By the time the chain of knowledge reaches a person with sufficient clearances to see across the compartments, that person is such a high-level executive that he or she doesn’t have sufficient depth in the technology and/or the time to dig into the area to recognize that one solution has applicability across multiple compartments.
As the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten recently put it: “If the only people in the room are four stars, you really can’t get any work done.” The result is both wasted resources and missed opportunities. The Department of Defense has no idea if we are spending enough on space because the efficiency of what we spend is so reduced by over-classification.
Nonexistent or rudimentary integration of space capabilities into the plans and exercises of combatant commanders: Most space programs believe they have done their duty to the war fighter if they have presented a briefing to a four-star combatant commander and added that leader’s name to the “in-briefed” list, and assumed that he or she can single-handedly fold the capability into the operations plans of the command. The commander signs a piece of paper with strange names on it, informing that individual that if he or she talks with anyone else about the program, the signatory will be liable to prosecution. Without knowledgeable operations staffs that have exercised these programs, there is little chance they will be effective when needed the most — when conflict starts.
Ignorance of specific space threats: China and Russia are deploying space-based systems that will threaten forward-deployed, American joint task forces at sea, in the air and on the ground. Yet, the details of this threat are so highly classified that they are not known by the deploying forces. It matters to a carrier battle group in the Western Pacific exactly how well a Chinese satellite system can track individual ships — to what accuracy, under what weather conditions, despite what countermeasures. Currently, information like this can only be provided to forward forces with extraordinary precautions that make it late and often useless. The battle groups have not incorporated this key intelligence into predeployment training. If the situation is this bad for American forces, it is even worse for coalition forces alongside us in every war we have fought.
What is the solution? The problem is not easy, or else it would have been fixed by now. There are powerful, bureaucratic forces invested in the current system: The rewards for sharing pale against the penalties of mishandling highly classified space information.
In practice, it is almost impossible for a military commander or civilian official to overrule the security bureaucracy. As a first step, we recommend the establishment of a high-level commission of former officers and officials to recommend a better system. The commission should be charged to document the costs of the current system, then to come up with a better one that will protect information to a high degree while allowing much greater sharing across acquisition programs, between programs and operational forces, and between the intelligence community and operational forces.
With a plan for improvement in hand, current defense leaders will have a blueprint for improvement, and Gen. Raymond’s new service will have a better chance for success.
Dennis Blair is a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command and served as the director of national intelligence. He currently chairs the Lockheed Martin Space Senior Advisory Group. Robert Work previously served as U.S. deputy secretary of defense. He is currently a director at Raytheon Technologies and is on the board of advisers for several small, high-tech space companies.