DoD technology buyers defend need for secrecy in space programs

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Space RCO Director: “What we do is classified for a reason.”

WASHINGTON — The head of a U.S. Space Force office that develops sensitive technologies said declassifying space programs would make it easier for adversaries to get a leg up on the United States.

“What we do is classified for a reason, it’s because we’re trying to get out in front of the threat,” Michael Roberts, director and program executive officer of the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, said Aug. 13 on a virtual forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute.

The Space Rapid Capabilities Office, or Space RCO, was established by congressional mandate in November 2018. Based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Space RCO has a budget of over $100 million to develop and acquire space technologies using special authorities.

The ability of government officials to openly talk about military space capabilities has been the subject of debate in recent years.

Senior leaders — including Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten — have argued that there is an over-classification of national security space programs and that policies should be revisited.

These officials said they would like to more openly discuss space programs with members of Congress, the space industry and the public at large. They also contend that giving adversaries some knowledge of what capabilities the United States has would have a deterrent effect.

Roberts said he agrees with the point about deterrence. “There absolutely is a reason why you need to be able to talk about what you can do,” he said. “Deterrence is a piece of the strategy.”

But Roberts insisted that declassifying military space technology is too risky. “If you unclassify, to a certain point, you’re no longer out in front of the threat, you’re just trying as hard as you can to pace, and that’s not where we want to be.”

For that reason, he said, it is unlikely that current levels of secrecy will be loosened. “I don’t see that changing necessarily,” said Roberts.

Randall Walden, director and program executive officer of the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, agreed that secrecy is necessary to protect the U.S. advantage in certain technologies.

Walden’s office is overseeing the development of the next-generation B-21 stealth bomber

The Air Force has openly said the B-21 is being built. “There’s a lot of information out there,” Walden said. “But at the same time if we rolled out all of the things that we’re doing on that, it gives our adversaries at least an opportunity to be ahead.”

“You can take a bunch of unclassified information and piece it together, and now all of a sudden it’s become classified,” said Walden. “And so from an operational security point of view I think we have to be mindful of that, especially when we’re in a great power competition,” he added. “Americans will be flying that airplane into harm’s way, we do not want our adversaries to know the capabilities.”