Some new perspective is needed in the seemingly endless debate about the integration of so called black and white space, a term that usually refers to getting the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to accomplish their very different missions in space without excess duplication of effort.

During the tenure of former Deputy Secretary of the Air Force Peter B. Teets, he served as a single point of contact for intelligence and space systems. After his departure, they were separated again with the NRO and Air Force seeking alternative ways to provide for greater integration of the acquisition of space assets. But the core question of any integration effort is to determine why one is integrating, for what purpose and what capability one seeks to deliver from an integrated effort.

The goal of merging black and white space is not to bring together two historically significant organizations that had been built up for Cold War needs and turn them into a new mutant variant that is still more relevant to history than the future. The core requirement is to provide for a single architecture to meet the needs of disparate national security users — both military and civilian. What has changed in the post-Cold War environment is the nature of those needs. Civilian, intelligence and military agencies all have requirements for global situational awareness, actionable intelligence and a capability to support timely and effective actions against evolving global threats. Fixed sights and targets are of reduced importance .

Non-state actors have enhanced significance. An ability to share information with civilian and commercial partners, such as in the maritime security domain, is reducing the salience of the black versus the gray world of intelligence. And most significantly, in an era of network operations the decision-making system is becoming more decentralized with a dramatic shift in the need to support differentiated decision-making systems.

In effect, a shift is in place from a primacy on infrastructure construction and management to becoming a service sector. The space-based domain of the NRO and the U.S. Air Force space command is becoming more network and cyber-oriented. Air-breathing systems and ground support capabilities are becoming of equal significance to the global enterprise of actionable intelligence.

The term actionable intelligence is a bit of a misnomer — the key requirement is to reshape decision-making systems so that timely actions can be taken against evolving threats. This recalls the ancient Greek concept of ethos — the challenge of determining whether an argument is valid or not. The errors in judgment about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was not a failure of intelligence but a failure of ethos — an ability for decision makers to determine correctly a valid argument in a sea of conflicting data.

The U.S. intelligence community and its U.S. Air Force space counter parts continue to stovepipe acquisition systems. There clearly can never be a service culture when hardware or program decisions are dominated by System Program Offices, that have no strategic context within which to determine how decisions can be taken that augment the capability of new systems to contribute to an overall architecture serving all user needs.

Don Kerr, the new NRO director, clearly understands the imperative of shifting his organization towards a service culture. “Today’s users are fundamentally different. They now demand information, not data. Furthermore, they want fused, multi-discipline, multi-phenomenology information tailored to their specific areas of interest and particular problems. And they want it now,” states the NRO Strategic Framework, released in April.

But to do what Kerr wants requires an integrated architecture supporting the community of national security users, civilian, commercial, military and intelligence. The growing gap between the U.S. government and the global community — notably, the commercial and homeland security communities — will only exacerbate the need to shape an appropriate integrated architecture for intelligent action, rather than provide for intelligence shaped as actionable by a rigidified systems. The danger is that the United States will rely more on advancing technology and less on collaborative relationships to provide for intelligent decisions.

A single national security space organization clearly needs to be created to shape an integrated architecture and to provide a clear set of acquisition rules and approaches. The patchwork of programs that have historically made up the national security space community needs to be terminated.

Capabilities-based procurement needs to become the order of the day. Only with the creation of a strategic organization can a strategic dialogue with the user community become effective. The national security space organization needs to have a core user panel shaping strategic choices and guiding capabilities-based procurement. The current National Security Space Office could be transformed and give more power in order to be able to perform these joint functions. And the national security space organization must be better connected with the air-breathing and ground-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) providers in the national security community as well.

The evolution of the space business suggests changes which the national security space community needs to make as well. Historically, space companies have been shaped by the launch and satellite manufacturing businesses. The evolution of the space business over the decade ahead will be shaped by constellations, systems, software and service models. And the commercial sector will drive change in the service approaches, which the national security community must adapt to as well, notably in the communications, weather and sensor domains.

In short, the purpose of integration is to create a service-oriented national space community. The community would be built around the provision of capabilities to an expanding set of service clients. The space architecture would be crafted around capabilities-based procurement, not stove piped programs. The architecture would be complementary in character to the evolving non-space systems — this complementary approach would be shaped by a dramatic expansion in the role of the user communities.

The goal would not be to provide for the most advanced technologies providing data to cloistered intelligence analysts; rather the focus would be upon providing the most effective information to timely decision-making.

Laird is a Washington- and Paris-based defense aerospace consultant.