Back in March, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell signed an agreement clearly intended to spell out the roles and responsibilities of their respective organizations in managing key
national security space programs.

It looked like an important step toward dampening the institutional rivalry that has long prevented the defense and intelligence communities from working more closely together on programs serving both. Unfortunately, an Aug. 15 memo from John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, testifies to a lack of progress since then.

In the memo, distributed to senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, Mr. Young takes issue with several aspects of a draft memo circulated for coordination by the DNI’s office that outlined plans for a satellite program called BASIC, or Broad Area Surveillance Intelligence Capability. If the specifics and overall tone of Mr. Young’s memo are any indication, mistrust and palace intrigue are alive and well among the two camps.

BASIC is a two-satellite program designed to collect so-called Tier 2 imagery, which in terms of detail and other qualitative measures falls somewhere between the pictures provided by commercial satellite operators DigitalGlobe and GeoEye and data collected by the highly sophisticated satellites owned by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

The program’s compliance with a
policy requiring the national security community to rely to the maximum practical extent on commercial data providers has been questioned from the start, and Mr. Young’s memo shows that this issue is yet to be resolved. Mr. Young lays blame for this on the DNI’s office, but his own position is at best ambiguous. To cite an example, on one hand he says “the purchase of two commercial-class satellites is inconsistent” with the president’s policy; on the other, he invokes the fact that these are “commercial-class satellites” to make the case that decisions concerning the procurement should be handled via normal channels and not by the defense secretary and DNI.

BASIC’s policy challenges aside, Mr. Young’s memo paints a vivid portrait of yet another bureaucratic tug of war. Mr. Young says the DNI draft memo disregards prior agreements regarding BASIC’s implementation and that DNI officials are seeking decision-making authority for the program’s space segment, something that – in his view – rests entirely with the Pentagon. “The BASIC program could be well underway if every decision was not constantly being re-litigated and if key stakeholders would collaboratively work the issues,” Mr. Young says.

This has to be discouraging to advocates of closer integration of classified and unclassified national security space activities – it has a ring that is all-too familiar: The Space Radar program collapsed earlier this year due in part to the inability of the defense and intelligence communities to agree on program requirements or control.

Mr. Young’s memo reinforces some of the findings of a forthcoming report on national security space management that was mandated by Congress and prepared by a panel of well-known experts who have held high-level positions in government and industry. A key recommendation of the report, whose working title is “Leadership, Organization and Management of National Security Space,” is the creation of a single national security space authority led by a director with clear responsibility for both classified and unclassified programs. Underneath this authority, the requirements, procurement and operating functions for both military and intelligence space systems would be merged into a single organization, whereas today they are spread across at least three.

As one of the report’s authors, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Edward Anderson, said during a pre-release briefing, the situation today with national security space is that “no one’s in charge, so everybody thinks they’re in charge.” The result on Space Radar, he said, is that nothing got done. Mr. Anderson, a former commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command, could just as easily have been talking about BASIC.

That the report’s timing coincides with the latest news on BASIC is interesting, to say the least. But the timing in relation to the
presidential election might not be advantageous: Civil space has gotten at least some lip service from the two major candidates due to the fact that the nation faces a five-year gap in its ability to launch astronauts, but national security space doesn’t have the public visibility to become a campaign issue.

This situation contrasts with the circumstances surrounding the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization – commonly known as the Space Commission. That expert panel’s 2001 report came out shortly after U.S. President George W. Bush first took office and was originally chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, who became secretary of defense in the new administration.

The Space Commission report addressed some of the same issues cited in the more recent assessment and led Mr. Rumsfeld to create a single position with overarching responsibility for classified and unclassified space. But that change was reversed after a few years, a fact that does not bode well for the more-sweeping reorganization now being proposed.

It’s a safe bet, however, that under the current structure, the turf war between the defense and intelligence communities over national security space will continue unabated. It is an issue that will be more than ripe for the picking – again – when the next president settles into the White House.