WASHINGTON — A new congressional report on U.S. national security space activities has come to all-too-familiar conclusions, saying the United States is losing its pre-eminence in space due to lack of leadership, poor acquisition processes and failure to address industrial base issues like export regulations.
The report, released by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also questioned whether operators of commercial imaging satellites are being given a chance to compete on a level playing field against government-owned assets when it comes to serving U.S. national security customers. It says senior military and intelligence officials should assess whether current U.S. policy, which dictates that the government rely to the maximum practical extent on commercial satellite imagery, needs to be strengthened or clarified.
The “Report on Challenges and Recommendations For United States Overhead Architecture,” was prepared by members and staff of the subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence based on meetings with top-level military, intelligence and industry officials. Released Oct. 3 by intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the report contains numerous recommendations ranging from developing an overarching strategy for national security space programs, to clarifying authorities over joint military-intelligence efforts and encouraging development of less complex systems.
The report came less than two months after another report, this one prepared by experts at the behest of Congress, reached a similar set of conclusions. The so-called Allard Commission report, named after retiring U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who called for it, recommended putting a single person in charge of a new organization to procure and operate all national security space programs, regardless of function or classification.
The Reyes report said developing a comprehensive architecture that prioritizes space systems was one of the first tasks for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) when the office was created in 2005, but today the “nation is no closer to having a clearly defined plan.” The report calls for the secretary of defense and DNI to develop a plan to accommodate current and future national security priorities. The two undersecretaries of defense should agree on the architecture and its funding, and the Office of Management and Budget should carefully consider which space programs should be pursued until that plan is in place, the report said.
The report said the executive branch is concerned about the dilution of authority over space programs and a lack of accountability for acquisition decisions. This problem is most evident in programs that are funded jointly by the military and the national intelligence budgets, the report found.
One recent example of such a program is the planned Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collector (BASIC) system, whose space and ground segments are funded out of the military and intelligence budgets, respectively.
Like the Allard Commission, the Reyes report found success is “more easily achieved when it is clear who is in charge.” The lawmakers recommend that the executive branch review and identify changes to clarify the role of the DNI in jointly funded programs, and that the Office of Management and Budget more closely consider what programs should be jointly funded.
Meanwhile, industry officials participating in the study suggested the problems that have plagued space acquisition in the past are far from fixed. The report said satellite programs often fail to adhere to requirements for capability, resulting in cost overruns, delays and failures. The military and intelligence leadership are partly to blame because they fail to compromise on capabilities, resulting in systems that stretch the limits of technological complexity.
To deal with this problem, the report recommends that Defense Department and DNI requirements councils meet to prioritize needs and consider the cost and schedule impacts of programmatic changes. The report also said acquisition organizations should pursue less complex satellite designs.
On the topic of commercial satellite imagery, the report said a desire on the part of strategic decision makers for priority over other users of satellite imagery, and for rapid response to tasking requests, is driving a push for more government-owned systems. Industry representatives countered that priority access can be secured through contractual arrangements, the report said.
The report recommended that the deputy director of national intelligence for collection, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and commercial imagery providers meet to identify barriers to being able to quickly task and deliver data from commercial assets. If barriers are found to exist, these organizations should study what it would take to remove them.
“This panel should also seek to eliminate policy barriers that unnecessarily impede the use of commercial imagery services,” the report said.
The secretary of defense and DNI should recommend to the next presidential administration whether to strengthen or clarify current presidential directives regarding commercial imagery, “so that all acquisition organizations understand their responsibilities under these directives with respect to using commercial services,” the report said.
Lastly, the report said most of those interviewed agreed that the State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations hamper technology development and hurt the U.S. space industry. The report recommends that the deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition assess the regulations and recommend changes to Congress. It also recommends that the NGA help ensure that regulations on commercial remote sensing companies do not impede their ability to compete in the international market. The NGA advises the U.S. Commerce Department, which regulates the commercial remote sensing industry on such matters.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Edward Anderson, a principal at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a member of the Allard Commission, agreed with the findings in the Reyes report.
“I didn’t disagree with any of the findings,” Anderson said. “My assessment of the recommendations is they just didn’t go far enough. These recommendations may help but are somewhat tweaks at the margin.”
Anderson said the many recent and troubling reports on the state of U.S. national security space are generating awareness about the problem, but expressed concern that significant action will not be taken.
“The same threat [the United States faced during the Cold War] doesn’t exist. What I hope does not have to happen to implement changes is another national tragedy, but that just seems to be the nature. Something has to happen to create urgency in order to make big things happen.”