HUNTSVILLE — Despite some positive recent steps to improve cooperation between the military and intelligence communities on space programs, at least one top U.S. Air Force official is concerned the two organizations appear to be moving farther apart.
Maj. Gen. James Armor, director of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, said during a recent conference that his office is doing the best it can to keep the two organizations on the same page as it develops architectures for improved space capabilities. However, that task has proven challenging in the wake of the Defense Department’s decision last summer to decouple the position of Air Force undersecretary and director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Armor said.
Following the split, the NRO pulled its funding from the National Security Space Office, even though the intelligence agency still has expected the office to conduct work on its behalf, Armor said Aug. 15 at the 2006 Space and Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville, Ala.
The Pentagon consolidated the positions of Air Force undersecretary and NRO director in 2001 following the implementation of recommendations from an independent space commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld prior to his nomination to serve again as U.S. Secretary of Defense, a post he also held from 1975 to 1977.
The goal of bringing the Air Force undersecretary and NRO director positions together — something that had been done in the past — was to create a single advocate for military and intelligence space programs and better align the acquisition work of the two communities, according to the Report of the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization, which was released in January 2001.
Under that plan, the National Security Space Architect, which has since been consolidated into the National Security Space Office, was charged with developing architectures for both military and intelligence users.
Armor acknowledged that having separate leaders in charge of Air Force and NRO space programs has helped those officials to better focus on fixing problems with their respective space acquisition programs — a trouble spot for both organizations in recent years. But he also said national security space users including the military, the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security, would all benefit from having a single advocate who also could help the various organizations coordinate their work.
One example where the National Security Space Office is trying to hold military and intelligence users together is the next generation of secure communications satellites, Armor said. Armor described the communications architecture as one of the most successful instances of cooperation between the Air Force and the NRO, but said that he was not sure how much longer he could keep the two communities together on the plan.
The Air Force and NRO took steps towards better cooperation in June with the signing of an agreement that included assigning an Air Force major general to serve as a top deputy at the NRO. In an Aug. 24 written response to a follow-up question from Space News, Armor said that he believes that the agreement is a step in the right direction.
Several congressional aides said that Armor’s willingness to speak publicly about his concerns with cooperation between the Air Force and NRO, rather than confine that sentiment to closed-door briefings, indicate a high level of frustration on the matter.
The aides also said that they have seen signs that the NRO could be moving apart from the Air Force on joint development of the Space Radar program as well.
The Space Radar satellites are intended to provide high-resolution imagery to intelligence users, and help spot moving targets on the ground for the military. Air Force and NRO leaders have pledged publicly in the past to pursue a single constellation of satellites to meet both communities’ needs, and in January 2005, Rumsfeld and then-CIA director Porter Goss signed a memorandum declaring that to be official policy.
However, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, noted in a June 22 interview that the NRO has not requested funding to pay for its share of the Space Radar bill, and congressional aides expressed concern that the NRO may seek to develop its own system.
Reyes’ colleague, Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the strategic forces panel, has said that buying separate radar constellations for the Air Force and NRO is not affordable. Everett and Reyes had written a joint letter to senior administration officials last year when the NRO director and Air Force undersecretary positions were decoupled, expressing concern that the separation could undue progress that had been made in bringing the two closer together in recent years.
Aides said that having separate officials in the roles of the NRO director and Air Force undersecretary may help fix problems with space acquisition programs, but questioned whether that work could not be more appropriately handled by deputies while the top officials worked on policy issues like closer cooperation on the development of new space systems.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said that the rise in national security budgets since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 might have diminished the incentive for the NRO to cooperate with the Air Force on space systems, as the officials at the intelligence agency may feel that there is now enough money to meet their needs without seeking a joint solution that could require some compromise on their part.
With NRO officials convinced that there is enough money for their own separate system, their lack of commitment to Space Radar has contributed to a sense on Capitol Hill that the program is not ready for prime time and has made it ripe for significant reductions to its budget request over the past several years, Thompson said.
“Too much money has led to too little cooperation in national security space,” Thompson said. “They don’t have this problem in Israel.”