Reports by U.S. government-appointed panels typically are released with much fanfare, only to wind up being ignored and forgotten by policy-makers. The January 2001 report of a blue-ribbon commission on military space was supposed to be different, in large part because the panel initially was chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, who later was confirmed as U.S. secretary of defense.
But things have not worked out the way most observers had expected. Five years after the release of the “Report of the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization,” many of its key recommendations remain unfulfilled, while others that were adopted have since been reversed or watered down.
The primary reason, says retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Howell Estes, who served on the commission, is the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism, which has consumed the Pentagon’s attention and resources.
Top national security officials are “overwhelmed” with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it would be inappropriate for space to take a higher spot on their agenda, said Estes, who served as commander in chief of U.S. Space Command before retiring to become a defense consultant in 1998.
None of the report’s recommendations for White House-level changes — all outside Rumsfeld’s control — have been implemented. They included having the president establish military space as a top national priority; creating a presidential advisory group for national security space; and appointing an interagency group for space.
Recommendations falling within Rumsfeld’s bailiwick that have gone unfulfilled include the creation of an undersecretary of defense for space, intelligence and information; and putting space programs in a distinct funding category. The Air Force has set up a “virtual” program to keep tabs on overall space spending, but that does not prevent those funds from being diverted to other areas, said Malcolm Wallop, a retired Republican senator from Wyoming who served on the commission. Wallop is chairman and founder of Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative advocacy group based in Oakton, Va.
Rumsfeld also created the position of undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and placed a close aide, Stephen Cambone — who had served as staff director of the space commission — in the post. Although this did not permanently establish a space advocate at the undersecretary level in the Defense Department, Cambone has helped keep new satellite programs like the Space Radar moving forward within the bureaucracy, Estes said.
Perhaps the most significant of the space commission’s recommendations that did get implemented was assigning oversight responsibility for all military space programs to the undersecretary of the Air Force, who also was given the job of National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) director. But the NRO director and Air Force undersecretary positions were once again separated this past summer at the behest of the intelligence community’s overseers on Capitol Hill.
In a recent interview, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a supporter of separating the jobs, said the NRO needed a dedicated director.
Former Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters agreed, but from a service rather than an NRO perspective. While space program oversight should fall upon the Air Force undersecretary, piling on the duties of NRO director leaves little time for other important service issues, he said.
Peters noted that Carol DiBattiste, who served as his undersecretary, often handled high-priority issues like improving Air Force retention and took on travel assignments that enabled him to focus on other matters.
Rumsfeld also adopted the commission’s recommendation to establish a dedicated four-star general to lead Air Force Space Command, but the move did not work out as envisioned. Prior to the report’s release, a single Air Force general held the top spot at U.S. Space Command, Air Force Space Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. The rationale for making leadership of Air Force Space Command a stand-alone position was to increase space advocacy at the four-star level.
But while the positions were separated, the duties of U.S. Space Command — which entail making space capabilities available across the services — were folded into U.S. Strategic Command, whose primary responsibility is managing the nation’s strategic arsenal. As a result, there was no net gain for space advocacy at the top of the Air Force officer corps.
Estes said the space commission did have an impact, even if its recommendations did not become gospel like many had expected. For example, he said, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency followed the commission’s recommendation and added a variety of space programs to its portfolio.
The Air Force also has strengthened ties between its space acquisition and user communities by consolidating the Space and Missile Systems Center under Air Force Space Command, Estes said. Unfortunately, that move has been overshadowed by the cost overruns and schedule delays on space programs stemming from the flawed acquisition practices of the 1990s, he said.