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SBIRS illustration
SBIRS is just one of many major military space procurments that have run into cost, schedule, and other problems in recent years. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

The Flying Spaghetti Monster: The American military space program in perpetual crisis

NASA gets a lot of criticism, for cost overruns, launch delays, and technical failings. Some of this is certainly justified. But some of it is the product of the fact that NASA embodies the spiritual hopes of an activist community that believes humanity’s destiny is among the stars and considers many NASA actions heretical. However, NASA is a model of efficiency and good government when compared to the American military and intelligence space programs, which have been in turmoil for a decade or more. Despite the fact that our security depends upon them, there is little public outcry of the fact that, as many Defense officials and others concede, the military and intelligence space programs are a total mess.

This was reaffirmed in the past couple of weeks by several new developments. First, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England opted to once again scale back the capabilities of the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite, or TSAT, an advanced communications satellite program. Around the same time, Congress, exercising a surprising amount of oversight in the military space field, canceled a reconnaissance satellite program known as BASIC (see “BASIC disappointment?”, The Space Review, September 22, 2008, and “A BASICally bad decision”, The Space Review, September 29, 2008). Then John Young, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, gave a press conference where he stated the obvious: the Air Force does a bad job of managing and budgeting for space programs. Young cited not only TSAT, but the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite, the fact that ground terminals required for the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) comsat weren’t built in time to receive data from the satellites, and the Air Force’s failure to budget to ensure the Wideband Global Satcom—another comsat, formerly known as the Wideband Gapfiller System—would continue to provide data to over two dozen weapon systems.

Despite the fact that our security depends upon them, there is little public outcry of the fact that, as many Defense officials and others concede, the military and intelligence space programs are a total mess.

To this list Young could have added several other programs in a litany of milspace woes: the NPOESS meteorological satellite (late, dramatically reduced in scope, and way over-budget), the delayed and over-budget AEHF comsat, the recently canceled Space Radar program, and probably (we don’t know because it’s classified) the biggest mess of all, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) reconnaissance satellite system. The photo-reconnaissance part of FIA got canceled, while the radar segment continues. The FIA mess resulted in a decision to pursue a classified option to cover one portion of the military and intelligence community requirements, and to pursue BASIC to cover another. Now, of course, BASIC is dead (or at least being harvested for its organs). If FIA doesn’t take the prize for biggest milspace disaster of recent years, that prize probably goes to SBIRS. SBIRS, in case you did not know, is at least 400% over its original budget and significantly behind schedule. Yes, you read that right: Four. Hundred. Percent. At least. It was declared in breach of the Nunn-McCurdy act, but is apparently still suffering from software problems that were supposed to be fixed by now. An effort to seek a replacement was scaled back to a demonstration program apparently because DoD leaders were assured that SBIRS’ problems had been solved.

In fact, things have gotten so bad that a special panel of experts known as the Allard Commission recently called for the elimination of the National Reconnaissance Office and the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. They argued that it was time to merge “black” (i.e. classified) and “white” (unclassified) space programs in large part because they are so poorly managed and coordinated.

The problem with milspace has been so bad for so long now that nobody seems to know what is the ultimate cause. The Air Force made a number of bad managerial decisions concerning its space programs back in the 1990s, such as outsourcing work and responsibility to the private sector. The service also lost a lot of institutional memory necessary for developing complex systems. The military has always had a problem with developing complex systems for various reasons, including its standard policy of rotating officers to new jobs after three years, meaning that few military officers ever stayed in the same space job long enough to acquire the requisite skills. The Air Force tried to counter this tendency by developing and maintaining The Aerospace Corporation in the 1960s, but made severe cutbacks at Aerospace after the Cold War that hurt its ability to provide the necessary support. Add to this a culture that primarily rewards fighter pilots with the top jobs and the service therefore ensured that space remained an unattractive career track for its officer corps.

There’s also another problem: requirements creep. Both FIA and SBIRS were put in a downward spiral as new requirements were added to them during their lengthy developments. One DoD official has said that no system could satisfy FIA’s requirements. NASA is far more immune to this danger. There are practical and cultural reasons why requirements get added to military space programs, including the fact that threats change and prompt new requirements. But military space also reminds one of an old soldier’s saying—“nothing is too good for our boys in the service… and that’s exactly what we’ll give them.” Nobody will deny “the warfighter” anything he asks for, even if it is impossible.

Whereas NASA and the military and intelligence space programs share the same pathologies, NASA’s are exposed to sunlight, which encourages reform—witness NASA’s housecleaning and reorganization after Columbia.

It’s also not clear what went wrong at the NRO and when, although in that case the answers may be clearer to those with the requisite security clearances. The spy agency used to be the source of great innovation and effective management of highly impressive programs. At some point that changed, possibly in the latter 1980s, when a calcification of bureaucracy crippled the NRO, but a simultaneous large influx of money managed to hide the problems, while paradoxically contributing to them. The NRO was also drastically reorganized in the 1990s. Its previous, occasionally destructive, competition between the CIA and Air Force components was largely eliminated. The NRO did achieve successes, primarily in transforming its ground segment to become far more responsive to military requirements. But the intelligence community (i.e. not the Air Force) also lost a lot of clout in determining requirements for its space systems. To what extent the emasculation of the CIA’s portion of the NRO contributed to the FIA debacle may not be publicly known for many decades. It’s clear now that the NRO is no longer the model of efficiency that it once was.

There is a bright spot in military space: launch vehicles. The Atlas and Delta rockets may not be achieving the cost targets that were originally set for them, but the DoD has not lost a rocket in ten years, although several payloads have gone into wrong orbits. That was the result of a painful decision forced by several painful losses. The Air Force determined that losing an expensive rocket and its expensive payload was simply unacceptable and chose to spend significantly more money on launch vehicle reliability. The cost per launch went up, but the string of dozens of successful launches since then speaks to the soundness of the decision.

Even if the military cannot learn many lessons about how to fix its space programs, there are a few lessons here for the rest of us. One lesson is that the military is not a good place to place your space bets. In the past few years people writing for The Space Review and elsewhere have proposed putting the military in charge of new large space weapons programs, or development programs like space solar power or suborbital transport. Given the military’s track record on its alphabet soup of programs—NPOESS, SBIRS, FIA, TSAT, MUOS, AEHF—why would anybody think that they could do a good job with SSP or an RLV tossed into the pot? A better long-term solution is to wait things out and hope that milspace gets its act together. A delayed start is far better than a prolonged and messy development.

Another lesson is that whereas NASA and the military and intelligence space programs share the same pathologies, NASA’s are exposed to sunlight, which encourages reform—witness NASA’s housecleaning and reorganization after Columbia. Military space, and particularly the intelligence space program, operate in a more secretive environment where (this is just a theory) problems can fester for a long time before they are addressed. How could the situation at the once-proudly innovative and efficient National Reconnaissance Office get so bad that a high-level review team has recommended not just its reform, but its elimination? We don’t know, but NASA should consider itself lucky.