The U.S. national security establishment’s apparent delayed reaction to policy questions raised by the experimental TacSat-2 mission is a good example of bad bureaucracy in action.
TacSat-2 is the first of a much-anticipated line of satellites intended to test a new paradigm for military space procurement and operations: low-cost satellites that can be built and launched relatively quickly as the need arises, and which are directly responsive to theater-based commanders. Yet some three months into what is supposed to be a six-month flight demonstration, program managers are still awaiting clearance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to activate the satellite’s two main sensors.
According to these officials, TacSat-2’s signals-intelligence and imaging payloads were thrown in limbo by concerns that they could be used for spying, possibly in a domestic context.
The mystery is why this issue — to the extent that it was real and not just drummed up as part of the never-ending sibling rivalry between the military and intelligence community — was not resolved prior to TacSat-2’s Dec. 16 launch. This project was hatched more than three years ago and the satellite’s payload and mission were not exactly tightly held state secrets.
For their part, program officials said they engaged OSD to address policy questions that might affect TacSat-2 operations two years prior to the launch. Everyone knows that the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, but this is ridiculous.
A Defense Department official laid at least part of the blame on the fact that TacSat-2 did not have TacSat-1 as a policy trailblazer. TacSat-1 was supposed to be the first in the series to fly, but it remains stranded on the ground due to launch vehicle-related issues. Although the missions are similar, TacSat-1’s payloads are less capable than those on TacSat-2, and thus would not have been as sensitive with regard to the spying issue. With TacSat-1 experience under their belts, the reasoning goes, policymakers would have felt more comfortable with TacSat-2.
There is some logic to this explanation. On the other hand, one can easily envision TacSat-1 being hamstrung for the same reasons. And in any case, delays to both satellites have given defense and intelligence officials more than enough time to anticipate and resolve any legal, policy or jurisdictional issues they might pose. TacSat-2 originally was supposed to launch in October 2004, after all.
It is simply inexcusable that a space experiment, particularly one with as high a profile as TacSat-2, was not cleared for full-scale operations well before launch. As it stands, the mission will either have to be extended, which costs money, or the Pentagon will have to settle for less data than it paid for. TacSat-2 cost an estimated $63 million to build and launch, which is not an insignificant investment.
Several members of Congress have taken a keen interest in the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space efforts, of which the TacSat satellites are among the more prominent. These lawmakers need to look into the TacSat-2 snafu and take steps to ensure that it does not repeat itself in some form on future space experiments that fall into the gray area between military and intelligence.
These steps could include demanding assurances, backed by evidence if necessary, that all relevant parties are making a good-faith effort to resolve any potential policy snags well in advance of launch. If the negotiations drag on to the point that a launch date is threatened — or worse, beyond the actual launch date — the parties involved should be called before Congress to explain themselves in public. The prospect of losing their anonymity will encourage government officials to approach these matters with a greater sense of urgency and to think twice before engaging in obstructive bureaucratic shenanigans.