The agreement between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National
Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell to jointly manage intelligence acquisition programs is encouraging given how often these two camps have found themselves at odds in recent years over who controls what.


Obviously it is too soon to tell whether the memorandum of agreement signed in March will truly improve collaboration between the two communities, but it does suggest that the leadership of both is ready to set aside the turf squabbles of the recent past.
Formidable challenges clearly remain
Not only do the two sides often require different types of surveillance capabilities; the processes by which they decide which ones are the most important are dramatically different.


What the agreement does, in a nutshell, is officially recognize the role of the Office of the DNI in managing the acquisition of systems, including spy satellites, funded by the National Intelligence Program, while giving the Defense Department a formal seat at the decision-making table. These responsibilities were not explicitly assigned in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which created the DNI position and which the agreement is intended to codify.


The pact also strengthens Pentagon and DNI oversight of acquisitions by intelligence component agencies including the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency. Milestone decision authority – the power to move a program from one acquisition phase to the next – for intelligence programs has long formally rested with the Pentagon and DNI acquisition chiefs, but in practice this has been delegated to these agencies as a matter of course.


Now, however, this authority will be delegated only via joint memorandum and after a thorough review. The agreement also provides for quarterly reviews of intelligence acquisition programs, to be followed by more detailed analyses and possibly corrective actions for those that are having problems.


Some see the agreement as an effort to rein in what they describe as an NRO that has forgotten how to manage programs and is pursuing its own agenda. As evidence, they point to problems the spy satellite agency has had on programs recently as well as the recent decision to put the brakes on the NRO’s planned acquisition of a capability called Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection. In recent interviews sources also told Space News
the NRO has lost or is about to lose its milestone decision authority on two other satellite programs.


The NRO, for its part, issued a statement March 22 applauding the Pentagon-DNI agreement for strengthening collaboration in the acquisition of space-based collection systems.


Almost all NRO programs are classified, making it difficult to compare the agency’s current performance to what some old hands like to characterize as the glory days. That said, there is little question the agency has had its problems of late, and not just on the Future Imagery Architecture, one of the few spy satellite programs whose name and existence are not classified. But it is also true that the NRO has plenty of company in this regard, as anybody who has tracked U.S. Air Force and NASA programs in recent years surely knows. Technical difficulty, cost growth and delays have been part and parcel of the modern government space enterprise; indeed, one must wonder if this hasn’t always been the case and that the NRO and other agencies simply had less scrutiny and more buying power in the past.


That question aside, it does appear that the NRO jumped the gun on the Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection program, which has been tripped up in part by concerns that it ran afoul of a U.S. policy that requires government agencies to rely on commercial data providers as much as possible for routine mapping needs. It is no secret that some in the NRO strongly oppose this policy.


While the Gates-McConnell memo has the effect of tightening the reins on the NRO, it is not clear that this was the primary intent. In any event, far more important is the question of whether it will facilitate the acquisition of truly joint capabilities, something that has proven extremely difficult over the years despite the fact that military and intelligence requirements overlap in key areas. Perhaps the most glaring example in recent memory is the now-defunct Space Radar, which floundered for a number of reasons, among them a persistent inability of the two sides to agree on a common set of requirements.


With growth in U.S. national security spending likely to slow in the coming years it is imperative that the two sides learn to work more closely together in system acquisition. A willingness to compromise on requirements – and to adopt, where appropriate, each other’s best processes for setting those requirements – will create opportunities to enhance security at less cost to taxpayers. Mr. Gates and Mr. McConnell have laid a foundation that might allow that to happen – so long as others are willing to build on it.