Guest Blog: Military Space & A National Space Council: An Unwanted Answer to Persistent Problem?

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In 2008, the congressionally sponsored panel called the Allard Commission issued a report titled “Leadership, Organization and Management for National Security Space.” The Commission, unsurprisingly, found the organizational aspects and coordination of military space (milspace) activities and integration fundamentally lacking — in fact, broken. For years, study after panel, commission after committee has recognized the problems and need for change — and yet it persists. The Allard Commission, however, also offered a roadmap for change. But more than two years after the report was issued, and with a new administration in office, milspace development and utilization is still limited by organizational gridlock and resistance, with no sign of positive change on the horizon.

Given the sheer vastness of space, it’s hard to imagine that it could ever be so small as to generate fiefdoms, but somehow the U.S. military’s space bureaucracy has managed to do it. Requirements for space capabilities, as it turns out, aren’t somewhere in the military, they are everywhere. These requirements are not only spread across a vast expanse (that would be the bureaucracy in this case, not space itself), but they most often are chokingly expensive, potentially drawing much-needed funding away from traditional service capabilities. It is perfectly normal, regarding space or anything else, that the military services want input into decisions regarding how and where funding is spent, and full access to the use of whatever comes from that spending. There is, of course, far less enthusiasm for actually paying the bills themselves. Add into the mix entrenched bureaucratic acquisition practices and the usual inertia of organizational politics, and the result is decades of failed attempts at various arrangements to add more coherence to military space planning, development and organizational integration.

The Allard report, as pessimistic as it was, offered four recommendations toward moving beyond the current impasse. The first was to reinstate the National Space Council as an overarching body to coordinate space activities and arbitrate interagency disputes. Apparently, they recognized that bureaucracies — with self-perpetuation as a key organizational goal — are unlikely to “fix themselves,” and require an external nudge or push, as the case may be.

As a candidate, President Obama promised to bring back the National Space Council, and his science advisor, John Holdren, reaffirmed this intention during his Senate confirmation hearings in February 2009. Senate space subcommittee Chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) rightly noted that reviving the National Space Council, if done competently, could take space issues out of the hands of “some green-eyeshade person at the Office of Management and Budget” and put it in the hands of those substantively capable of assessing highly technical and politically forward-leaning policy issues. A 2009 Report by the Aerospace Industries Association titled “The Role of Space in Addressing America’s National Priorities” also states as its first recommendation, “Our space capabilities should be coordinated, at the highest level, as a singular enterprise.”

This was all a very promising start. And yet, within a year, all mention of the Space Council had vanished — even from the 2010 National Space Policy. The ability to stifle such a promised action is a tribute to the power of bureaucratic and organizational politics.

Former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner, considered an authority on organizational change, clearly differentiated between reorganization and transformation. “Reorganization to me is shuffling boxes, moving boxes around. Transformation means that you’re really fundamentally changing the way the organization thinks, the way it responds, the way it leads. It’s a lot more than just playing with boxes.” For too long, the U.S. has been toying with reorganization of vital milspace activities. Issues identified by the Allard Commission in 2008 made it clear that what American space policy really needs is transformation and their recommendations toward that end should be heeded.

While the presence of a National Space Council does not assure that transformation will occur, its absence almost certainly does assure that it will not. Until the National Space Council exists, and its importance is reflected by being placed under the supervision of the president’s national security advisor, military space capabilities and the integration of those capabilities into U.S. fighting forces will be limited by gridlock, and a source of argument and petty turf battles. The limitless promise of the cosmos deserves better — and so do the American people.