PENTAGON: It poses one of the thorniest problems for the United States national security establishment: how to get the nation’s spy agencies, especially the secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the military to work together when someone attacks US spy and military satellites.
To offer some clarity on the way ahead for this relationship, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work agreed to an interview in his E-ring office at the Pentagon.
A rash of measures have been taken by both the military and the IC over the last 18 months to address what the Obama Administration clearly thinks is a fundamental change in the space domain. Where it was long a place where spy and missile warning satellites, GPS and communication birds provided services and data to the rest of the military, this administration sees space now as a battlefield that must be defended and whose capabilities must be made redundant and resilient. .
Right now, the NRO monitors and operates its own satellites. The Air Force, through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC), tracks everything in space and operates US military satellites. That leaves command and communication gaps between the Intelligence Community and the military in an era when space war is considered a virtual certainty should hostilities break out between major nation-states.
There is no easy fix to this. It took more than a year and personal intervention by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to bring the NRO on board to join in building a combined effort including the spy agencies and the military known as the JICSPOC (Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center). So far, the effort is pretty thin. The Pentagon scraped together $16 million for one dedicated person, data lines snaked into an old building, and construction of a Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility there.
The reason for this slow motion is pretty simple: the NRO believes, with some reason, that it is the superior bunch of satellite builders and operators. Their headquarters in Chantilly, Va,, known as the Four Towers, are touted as among the most secure in the United States. Their people, drawn from the elect and most promising of the services’ space experts, as well as from the CIA and other elements of the Intelligence Community, are legendary for their daring and expertise. There’s been periodic and persistent friction between what are called White Space (the uniformed services) and Black Space (the NRO, NSA and NGA et al) in part because of their sometimes overlapping missions and the constant struggle for money.
In the face of such resistance from the IC, you’ll hear senior defense officials talk about “unity of effort,” instead of “unity of command.” The military traditionally treasures unity of command because it makes lines of communication shorter, clearer, simpler and faster. That can save lives and win battles. The IC traditionally treasures its independence and freedom of action, no matter how closely it might work with the military.
Most recently, Work made it named Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James the first Principal DoD Space Advisor (PDSA) to help coordinate space policy and keep her eye on space acquisition. Formerly known as the executive agent for space — a position that grew tarnished by time and a legion of acquisition missteps during the late 1990s — this position will chair the Defense Space Council of the four services and the Joint Staff. This puts the head of the Air Force in the position of deciding fundamental conflicts within the Pentagon over space. She will also have a seat at the table on interagency issues involving policy and intelligence issues.
While the new PDSA position is designed to be independent of the service and its interests, previous experience when the Air Force undersecretary wielded the executive agency seemed to demonstrate that it’s very difficult to separate the position, the person and the jobs. People are human and they tend to reflect the interests of those who surround them. The secretary does sit in a higher position than the undersecretary did, but she and her successors are still human.
Work is leading the Pentagon on these efforts to better coordinate operations, acquisition and policies with the Intelligence Community. In our interview, he outlined the way ahead for the IC and Defense Department. The NRO and Air Force have agreed on nine scenarios to test over the next six months. That effort will be led by an experimental director, whom I’m not allowed to name. He also holds the more substantive title of director of the US military’s Space Security & Defense Program (SSDP). He reports to Work and to Stephanie O’Sullivan, the principal deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI), who manages Intelligence Community (IC) coordination and information sharing.
The SSDP tries to decide how vulnerable US satellites are and how those vulnerabilities should be mitigated, then inserts that information into the military’s the and the IC’s requirements and budgeting process.
Work laid out a number of other details for the JICSPOC. The director “will probably” come from Air Force Space Command. I understand, as has been usual with such positions, the deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office will be the deputy of JICSPOC.
Work said it’s likely for the foreseeable future that an attack on a military satellite will be managed by the military, and an attack on an IC bird will be managed by the NRO. Both sides would share information about the nature of attacks and their responses to them, Work said. After six months of experimentation, a senior defense official said that the JICSPOC should transition to something like initial operating capability by the end of the Obama administration.
I understand that, contrary to earlier comments by Lt. Gen. David Mann, the chief of Army Space & Missile Defense Command, the JICSPOC will be a backup capability to the JSPOC for command and control of U.S. space forces for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the head of Strategic Command, Adm. Cecil Haney (who leads the fight in space for the military) and Betty Sapp, NRO director, chair a doctrine forum created in January that will build Joint-IC space warfare Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) and decide who does what and how.
“With that we are looking really hard at how we can get better at command and control of our assets in space,” Haney told me this morning at a breakfast with the Defense Writers Group. The results from the group, known as the Joint Space Tactics and Doctrine Forum, will feed to the JICSPOC, which will actually develop and test the tactics.
This morning I asked Haney if the absence of unity of command between the NRO and military worried him, since it is usually a basic principle of military organization and operations. He said the IC and the military needed to go through this experimental phase. “We have to get through that piece before we take any other steps, in my opinion, before we go forward,” the very carefully spoken and deliberate STRATCOM leader said. “I’m very comfortable with this approach, today,”
This all comes as the Air Force and IC plan to beef up space control spending by $5 billion over the next five years, with that split evenly between the military and IC.