U.S. intelligence satellites are developed and acquired under the cloak of secrecy, but experts say that the problems affecting those efforts are often quite similar to the difficulties faced by the managers of unclassified space programs.
The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the U.S. Air Force both still are dealing with the aftermath of some of the acquisition reform decisions that were made in the 1990s, according to Brian Arnold, a retired Air Force three-star general who oversaw the development of most unclassified space programs as commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
Efforts taken in the 1990s to save money in the wake of the Cold War inadvertently hurt the acquisition work at both the NRO and the Air Force, shifting too much oversight responsibility on major programs to prime contractors and reducing the systems engineering work traditionally performed at early stages of programs, Arnold said during an April 5 interview.
The NRO and the Air Force rely on a common base of contractors and lower-tier suppliers for the development and construction of new satellites, said Arnold, who currently serves as vice president for strategic systems at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, Calif.
Another common theme with the problems in classified and unclassified space acquisition is the difficulty the NRO and Air Force have maintaining a strong cadre of space acquisition professionals, according to an article written by Robert Kohler and Ed Nowinski, two former directors of the CIA’s Office of Development and Engineering. The article was published in the June edition of the CIA publication Studies in Intelligence.
Kohler and Nowinski agreed that too much responsibility has been given to prime contractors, but noted that more government oversight is not always the answer.
With the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence and six different congressional committees demanding briefings from program managers, those managers are often too distracted to properly do their jobs, Kohler and Nowinski wrote in their article, titled “The Lost Art of Program Management in the Intelligence Community.”
Senior intelligence officials need to avoid micromanaging programs, and spend more time handling the briefings requested by Congress to allow their program managers to focus on their tasks, Kohler and Nowin ski wrote.
“The program manager should not have to spend a significant percentage of his or her time responding to overseers,” Kohler and Nowin ski wrote. “Management should protect them from this encroachment on their time and resources.”
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a think tank here, said that program managers at both the NRO and the Air Force often lack the background knowledge needed for their jobs, and “don’t stick around long enough to learn it.” The sharpest civilian program managers are hired away by industry, and uniformed officials are rotated into different positions every few years, Thompson said.
Kohler and Nowin ski recommend that the NRO begin to address the issue by establishing a professional acquisition corps that keeps civilians in the field while reducing its reliance on uniformed personnel. One of the obstacles to government program managers gaining sufficient background to oversee a complex effort is the heavy reliance on support staff from federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) and systems engineering and technical assistance contractors, Kohler and Nowin ski wrote.
FFRDCs and systems engineering and technical assistance contractors often handle jobs that could provide valuable experience to an young NRO official, Kohler and Nowinski wrote.