awmakers and staffers on the House Appropriations Committee have the right idea in pushing a pair of policy provisions that would bring greater transparency to the budgetary workings of U.S. military space programs.

One measure would declassify the budget for the planned Space Radar surveillance system; the other would categorize U.S. military space activities as a so-called major force program, enabling lawmakers to better track space spending across a variety of accounts. Both measures are included in the House version of the 2008 defense spending bill.

It is not certain that either provision will become law, or whether the major force program measure would have the effect – as some on Capitol Hill and elsewhere assert – of preventing the U.S. Air Force from raiding space budgets to fund other programs. But the fact that both have made it this far in the legislative process puts Pentagon planners on notice that House appropriators are paying close attention to space and that they intend to protect these vital but vulnerable programs.

Declassifying the Space Radar budget would be accomplished by making it an Air Force rather than an intelligence funding account. This would lift the veil of secrecy that was imposed early this year when the intelligence community – after much prodding – finally agreed to invest substantially in the dual-use program.

While the U.S. government as a rule does not disclose intelligence spending information, it is difficult to see the national security case for keeping the Space Radar’s budget secret. Its missions – gathering imagery for strategic and intelligence users while collecting mapping data and detecting ground movements for the military – already are well known, as are many of the associated challenges.

Congress, meanwhile, has long been justifiably concerned that the Space Radar will become yet another example of an overly ambitious military satellite program whose costs spiral out of control. Disclosing the Space Radar budget is not the same as revealing its capabilities or operating details, information that could be used by adversaries to blunt its effectiveness as a surveillance tool. But it would enhance congressional oversight, which should help keep managers and contractors more vigilant about controlling costs and more inclined to address potential problems before they become major ones.

The measure also would help protect the Space Radar program from budgetary shenanigans. It is no secret that the program has long been a source of disagreement between the Air Force and intelligence community over requirements and control. House appropriators clearly are concerned that putting intelligence officials in control of the Space Radar budget is akin to leaving the fox to guard the henhouse; in other words, some in the community would just as soon see the program go away, and left to their own devices, might try and steer it into oblivion.

That would leave Congress with little choice but to continue funding the super-secret radar imaging satellites operated by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, primarily for intelligence gathering. Such a scenario would effectively end, for the foreseeable future, any hope for a U.S. radar satellite surveillance system that is as responsive to commanders in the field as to strategic and intelligence officials in Washington.

The provision in the House bill assigning major force program status to space activities also is a protective measure, although the full extent of its impact is not clear; there appears to be some confusion – even among the experts – over the exact meaning of the designation.

Major force program status is a tool for tracking budgets for U.S. military activities that cut across spending accounts. Similar status has been accorded to areas such as strategic programs and airlift. Doing the same for space was among the recommendations of the Space Commission, an expert panel

originally chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, who would become secretary of defense.

The panel’s 2001 report served as a basis for a number of organizational changes designed to elevate the profile of space within the U.S. national security establishment.

Some proponents of the major force measure believe it would prevent the Air Force from raiding satellite and rocket budgets to cover operational contingencies or cost growth on other platforms, particularly aircraft. In part because of the size of their budgets, space programs often are treated as a cash cow to fund other accounts, a practice that contributes to the cost growth and delays for which space has become notorious.

But exactly how major force program status would curb this practice, legally or otherwise, isn’t spelled out in the legislation, and in any case the question of what constitutes budget raiding is a tricky one. Deviations from multiyear funding profiles are hardly unusual and can always be blamed on shifts in the overall fiscal environment or other circumstances that cannot be unequivocally categorized as raiding.

The Space Commission report does not highlight the budget-raiding issue in recommending major force program status for space. It focused

instead on other benefits: better visibility, both for tracking and accountability purposes; and heightened awareness of the importance of space to national security.

But this alone is reason enough to adopt the House measure; if it also turns out to be an effective shield for space budgets, so much the better. Hopefully, Senate appropriators will see the wisdom of both House provisions and include or perhaps even strengthen them in their version of the defense spending bill.