U.S. national security experts warn of threats to military space systems


National security experts told a House oversight panel Tuesday that the United States is failing to adequately address serious threats to its military space systems and that the Defense Department need to make major changes in its policies and acquisition strategies.

“The threat has outpaced our creation of policy and strategy appropriate to the need,” said retired Navy Adm. James Ellis Jr., who led U.S. Strategic Command when it merged with the U.S. Air Force Space Command. “We are playing catch-up in a very real sense, but it is not just about hardware and technology. A lot of it is about policies.”

For example, the United States must establish policies that will reassure allies and deter adversaries by clearly communicating, “What we stand for and what we will not stand for,” Ellis said Sept. 27 during a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) called the hearing, “National Security Space: 21st Century Challenges, 20th Century Organization,” to address problems facing national security space and discuss recommendations for “major reform,” which he plans to include in the 2018 defense authorization bill. “This is the start of the focused oversight we will conduct,” Rogers said.

The changing presidential administration offers Congress an opportunity to remedy some of the problems facing national security space, witnesses said, including the fragmented organizational and leadership structure.

As a July Government Accountability Office report noted, about 60 organizations share responsibility for national security space within the Defense Department, Executive Office of the President, various civilian and intelligence agencies. “Nobody has got line authority to make decisions,” Rogers said. “This organizational chart has to be simplified.”

Witnesses discussed ways to simplify the organizational structure and acquisition process for space systems, but did not agree on whether the United States should create a Defense Space Agency with authority similar to that of the Missile Defense Agency, establish a new military department for space or leaving things unchanged.

The Defense Department urged the GAO not to recommend any immediate changes until it can determine the results of the most recent reform instituted in October 2015, which gave the Air Force Secretary, the title Principal Deputy Space Authority (PDSA), according to the July GAO report, Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine If Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight.

John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary, was skeptical the PDSA designation would be an effective remedy. Whoever leads national security space needs a combination of the oversight responsibility the Office of the Secretary of Defense enjoys combined with the ability to run an organization, like the U.S. Special Operations Command. “You could do it through a defense agency or through a unified command, but you need somebody who is going to work every day and that is their job,” Hamre said. “They are not simply advising the Secretary of Defense.”

Witnesses also said the Defense Department and NRO need to reform their acquisition process. “It used to be that a brilliant colonel with a couple of briefings could get in front of the Secretary of Defense in a couple weeks,” Hamre said. “Now, it takes months, maybe a year, for a good idea to get in front of the Secretary of Defense and the steps along the way are just unbelievable. The acquisition system is failing us.”

Martin Faga, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office and former Air Force assistant secretary for space. Credit: HASC video
Martin Faga, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office and former Air Force assistant secretary for space. Credit: HASC video

The acquisition system also is failing to emphasize resilience, said Martin Faga, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office and former Air Force assistant secretary for space. Faga and Ellis led a classified National Academies study, “National Security Space Defense and Protection,” published in August. While conducting the study, its authors recognized that in an era where adversaries will attempt to thwart U.S. space operations, the military and intelligence community’s ability to “acquire, modify, backup or replace space capability must be more flexible and more rapid than today,” Faga told the panel. It takes far too long for both the military services and intelligence agencies to decide what to build, he added.

In addition, the military and intelligence community are not focused on making space systems resilient. “We need to understand there is robustness and resilience in having a lot of less capable assets,” Ellis said. “Maybe we take a little less capability and a lot more resilience as we more forward.”

That focus on reliance may prompt the military to rely more on commercial products and services, witnesses said. “We are really good at building reconnaissance satellites, but we can only afford to buy one or two,” Hamre said. “We need to put much more of our focus on what the private sector can give us and how we can use that.”