National Security Experts Warn of Threats to Military Space Systems

Last Tuesday, National Security experts told a House oversight panel that the Defense Department needs to implement major reforms in its policies and acquisition processes, and that the United States is failing to address serious threats to its military space systems. 

During the hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, retired Navy Admiral James Ellis Jr., said, ”The threat has outpaced our creation of policy and strategy appropriate to the need. 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.” To reassure allies and deter adversaries, the United States must create policies that clearly communicate, “What we stand for and what we will not stand for,” said Ellis. 

Subcommittee chairman Representative Mike Rogers named the hearing, “National Security Space: 21st Century Challenges, 20th Century Organization,” to discuss problems and recommendations for “major reform” of national security space as part of the 2018 defense authorization bill. Rogers said, “This is the start of the focused oversight we will conduct.”

According to Space News, attendees said that the changing presidential administration offers Congress an opportunity to redress issues of national security space, including organizational and leadership structure. 

As noted by a July report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), national security space responsibilities are shared amongst sixty organizations within the Defense Department, various civilian and intelligence agencies, and the Executive Office of the President. 

“Nobody has got line authority to make decisions. This organizational chart has to be simplified,” said Rogers. 

While attendees discussed ways to simplify the organizational structure and acquisition process for space systems, they did not agree on whether a new military department for space should be formed, leaving the issues unchanged. 

The Defense Department discouraged the GAO from recommending immediate changes until the results from a reform implemented in October 2015 have been determined, which gave the Air Force Secretary the title Principal Deputy Space Authority (PDSA). 

Former deputy defense secretary, John Hamre, was skeptical of the effectiveness of the PDSA nomination. Whoever leads national security space needs a combination of oversight responsibility and must be able to run an organization. “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. They are not simply advising the Secretary of Defense,” Hamre said. 

Also discussed was the need for the Defense Department and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to reform their acquisition processes.  “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. 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,” Hamre said. 

Martin Faga, former director of the NRO and former Air Force assistant secretary for space said that it takes far too long for intelligence agencies and military services to decide what to build.  Ellis and Faga led a classified National Academies study, where the authors noted that in an era where U.S. adversaries will attempt to hinder 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.” 

In addition, the military and intelligence community are failing to make space systems resilient. “We need to understand there is robustness and resilience in having a lot of less capable assets. Maybe we take a little less capability and a lot more resilience as we move forward,” said Ellis. 

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



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