Why the Space Force can’t merge with the NRO

by

This article was first published in the SN Military.Space newsletter. If you would like to get our news and insights for national security space professionals every Tuesday, sign up here for your free subscription.

SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

Is a Space Force incomplete without the National Reconnaissance Office? That appears to be a lingering question as the debate over the Trump administration’s proposal to establish a new military branch unfolds on Capitol Hill.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, lawmakers challenged DoD officials to explain why their proposal did not include the NRO — the organization that designs, builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites — as part of the Space Force.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks April 9, 2019 at the 35th Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks April 9, 2019 at the 35th Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said DoD decided against moving the NRO to the Space Force for expediency reasons, due to the administrative and legal complexities of combining a military with an intelligence agency. He said the Space Force would closely work with the NRO regardless of whether they are merged.

The NRO started out as a secret program in 1960, established jointly by the Air Force and the CIA, and its existence was declassified in 1992.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said there is a “very deep connection” between the Air Force and the NRO and noted that about 40 percent of NRO employees are airmen, and the rest are civilians and CIA employees. One of the missions of the Space Force would be to protect satellites from enemy jamming or other forms of attack. Wilson said “many of the things we’ll have to protect are actually NRO assets, so deepening that connection is important.”

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, said he expects the “Space Force of the future will have to have a very strong relationship with the NRO.” He noted that the Trump administration’s Space Policy Directive 4 directed a study ‚ due in mid-August, on how DoD and the NRO can better align their activities. “I hope we can do that faster than August, because that partnership is very important to the future,” Hyten said.

MILITARY NEEDS BETTER INTELLIGENCE In the weeks leading up to the SASC Space Force hearing, Pentagon officials discussed the NRO issue in briefings to committee staffers, sources told SpaceNews. According to briefing charts prepared by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUDI), merging the NRO with the Space Force “would disrupt delivery of key capabilities at a critical time.”

Another hurdle is the way funding is structured. The NRO is assigned programs funded by national intelligence and military intelligence budgets, and most of the NRO’s budget is funded by the National Intelligence Program.

A National Reconnaissance Office payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, launches from Space Launch Complex-3, March 1, 2017, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)
A National Reconnaissance Office payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, launches from Space Launch Complex-3, March 1, 2017, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)

So if a Space Force is stood up, the question remains how it will get the intelligence support it needs if the NRO is not going to be integrated into the new service. One of the reasons the Pentagon is proposing a Space Force is to respond to Chinese and Russian anti-satellite capabilities. Having reliable and timely intelligence about orbital and ground threats would be essential for the Space Force to do its job.

The OUDI in January directed a study to determine the “full scope of requirements for intelligence support to space,” the briefing charts said. The study was completed at the end of March. Among its findings:

  • Space control forces need better electronic warfare support, and are not able to make full use of current intelligence collection satellites because of a shortage of “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” capabilities
  • Current military space intelligence support work is being done by “non 24/7” organizations
  • Space control units have limited access to intelligence planners
  • A growing number of space control systems will require additional foundational operational intelligence
  • Planning for intelligence support to space programs must be included in the budgets of future space control systems.

The results of the study will inform a future “space control strategic portfolio review” to be led by the Pentagon’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. CAPE reviews have a huge influence on the Pentagon’s budgets.

SpaceNews Inc. will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you. You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.