SIMI VALLEY, California — The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian and a key member of Congress agreed Saturday on the need to declassify a large amount of information about America’s military space programs to both intimidate foes and encourage support among the public.
“Declassifying some of what is currently held in secure vaults would be a good idea,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “You would have to be careful about what we declassify, but there is much more classified than what needs to be.”
Fellow panelist Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said he met with the secretary earlier in the week to discuss that very issue, calling the information on space programs “overwhelmingly classified.”
For Rogers, that overclassification is one of the reasons it’s been so difficult for him and others to build support both in the public and with other members of Congress for a Space Force, a sixth branch of the military under the Air Force uniquely focused on space as a war-fighting domain.
“As members of the Armed Services Committee and the defense appropriators, we get it. But we have to have our other colleagues in the Congress to be supportive of us making the changes we need and the resources we need into this,” he said. "It’s not going to happen until they understand the threat and the dependence we have. And I don’t think that can happen until we see significant declassification of what we’re doing in space and what China and Russia are doing, and how space is in their day-to-day lives.”
Once Americans have access to that currently classified data, they will throw their support behind a Space Force, he concluded.
“The lack of an understanding really does hurt us in doing things that we need to do in space,” added Barrett. “There isn’t a constituency for space even though almost everyone uses space before their first cup of coffee in the morning.”
The two declined to say how much of the black space portfolio could move into the public, nor when changes would start happening. But Barrett pledged that it would be a focus for her office moving forward, a sign that progress could come during 2020.
The push comes as the intelligence community is also moving to declassify more information to combat threats posed by China, Russia and other nations. Then-Principal Deputy Director of Intelligence Sue Gordon stated in June that declassification is key to combating attempts by foreign powers to target American civilians for data collection. And that same month, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., called on the intelligence community to declassify more data to combat the growing threat that China’s government poses to American businesses.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has made efforts to make more unclassified information available to the public through a series of reports on the military capabilities of other nations. Earlier this year the agency released a report on the threats to space that was entirely unclassified, although that approach limited what information the agency could reveal.
For Barrett, that same approach to declassification needs to be taken for space.
“America is the best there is in space. Yet, as we watch the trajectory of potential enemies, we see that the relationship is changing. America is also the biggest user of space," she said. "Our way of life is more dependent on space than any other nation’s, and our capability in space was predominantly built at a time when we thought space was a benign environment.”
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.