Decisions about the U.S. national reconnaissance program can no longer be made under the assumption that intelligence requirements are always the first priority. The nation needs a management structure in which defense and intelligence community requirements can be fairly adjudicated. In addition, the Defense Department needs an advocate to develop requirements and define performance measures based in military operations that national reconnaissance program investments and operations must meet.

National security space priorities were established in 1965, with the third (and most recent) memorandum chartering the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NRO was empowered with exclusive authority to acquire spy satellites, which it was to do exclusively in response to requirements established by the national intelligence community.

This priority generally accorded well with the technology of the day. Over time, however, technical advances brought expanding opportunities for the NRO to serve military operations as well as strategic planning.

But program authority moved in the opposite direction. In 1965 the NRO director reported to an executive committee chaired by the secretary of defense. A decade later he answered to a foreign intelligence committee chaired by the director of central intelligence (DCI). Another 10 years found the DCI overruling the NRO director’s decisions about new acquisitions. And the mid-1990s brought tighter budgetary control by the intelligence community staff after the “forward funding” expose.

Certainly the past decade brought energetic and extensive efforts to consider military needs and requirements in acquisition planning, together with significant military representation within the NRO. But the NRO, still charged with responding to national intelligence requirements, controls the acquisition process, making those difficult decisions about which planned performance goals to sacrifice to save schedules and budgets.

So why is this a problem? After all, as a staffer on the Rumsfeld Space Commission told me, “It’s all ones and zeros.” Indeed, the past 40 years show that systems built primarily for intelligence purposes can be made to serve military needs as well.

But it is a problem, primarily because the different needs and priorities of the defense and intelligence communities lead to different investment decisions and different operational procedures. Generally, the military needs to use the complete information system –tasking, collection, processing, analysis, distribution — for training and sharing with coalition partners and in widely diverse locations, climates and conditions. The military needs systems that can address multiple targets in strategic depth and that are resistant to enemy interference. National intelligence users more often can be patient and more selectively focused, and can depend on secrecy for both access and protection.

Typically, military systems must translate data into information more efficiently, while intelligence systems must have higher resolution.

Second, the strategic context today calls for reordering our satellite priorities to favor space defense and space for defense. The United States has far more to lose than any other country if space becomes unusable. Space systems and their products have become central to civil, scientific and commercial activities, while providing critical force multipliers for military operations. A “scorched space” attack, not so unthinkable after the attacks of 9/11, would hurt the United States most of all.

With so much to protect — against limited as well as total attacks — the United States must make space defense a national mission. That begins with stronger search and surveillance capabilities to know with certainty what is in orbit and ready to launch. It includes comprehensive reporting on the health and status of friendly systems, and scrutinizing anomalies for the possibility of intentional interference. It extends to operational planning for assessing, reacting and defending as required.

At the same time, space has become relatively less important to national intelligence today. In the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, targets of interest now can be approached more closely and frequently by means other than satellites, and many of the most critical targets are not well-suited to satellite collection in any event.

Accommodating these changes and differences takes more than adding “hats” to the NRO director, as the Space Radar quagmire demonstrates. The management structure for spy satellites has to be revised, and the ongoing effort to revise the NRO charter provides a ready opportunity to do so.

Specifically, the president should direct the national intelligence director and the secretary of defense to:

  • Change the priorities of the national reconnaissance program. The NRO should serve defense requirements and priorities as well as those of the intelligence community, giving one or the other precedence as specific circumstances dictate.
  • Change the management of the national reconnaissance program. Return to the management structure of 1965, with the NRO director accountable to a three-person executive committee composed of the secretary of defense (chair), the national intelligence director and the national security advisor, with the NRO director as a non-voting attendee.
  • Fill the two salient voids: space defense and military customer assurance. The former includes surveillance and situational awareness as well as protective and force-application options. The latter includes ensuring appropriate interfaces for information exchange, as well as training forces in the field.

Robert Butterworth is a Virginia-based consultant and director of space programs at the George C. Marshall Institute. In the past he has held positions in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.