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Munson and Cartwright
Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Future Capabilities Al Munson (left) and Vice Chief of Staff General James Cartwright speak at the “Aligning Policies and Budgets” event earlier this month. (credit: D. Day)

Space policy 101: military space 2009

The military loves its jargon. In the military space field only a decade or so ago people talked about “space control.” That soon became “space dominance,” which then broadened to “full spectrum dominance.” It was clear from listening to several speakers about military and intelligence space programs at the June 2 Space Policy Institute sponsored symposium “Aligning Policies and Budgets” that the new jargon du jour is “domain.” Of course, like many military terms, it does not mean a single thing to all people. To some, “domain” is simply another word for “space” (or, alternatively, air, land, oceans, or cyberspace). For others, “domain” means a specific type of task, like electro-optical reconnaissance. Stop paying attention for a moment and you may not be able to figure out what domain they mean.

The symposium’s keynote address for the afternoon session on military space policy was led by General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Alden Munson, Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Future Capabilities. It was clear that quite a few of the 130 people in the audience were there to listen to Cartwright. Considering that the military space program has been severely shaken in the past few months with the cancellation of some major programs, it is not surprising that many people involved in the field are eager to learn what is going through the minds of the senior leadership. If in the civilian space program planning has crashed to a halt while everybody awaits the results of the Human Spaceflight Review (aka “the Augustine Commission”), in the military space program—er, domain—everybody seems to be on edge waiting for the next shoe to drop. It hasn’t been a good year. Then again, it hasn’t been a good decade. Nobody has really mastered this domain.

Chasing the milspace dragon

General Cartwright discussed some of the dilemmas facing military planners today when acquiring new space platforms. He said that it is an axiom in the military space business that only 30% of a platform’s lifetime is spent on the cutting edge. But what is worse is that the clock starts ticking when the military starts bending metal, not when the spacecraft achieves orbit. If the program is delayed, the satellite can already be obsolete the day it is turned on.

“If you expect me to share a foxhole with a Brit, but you cannot let me show him what’s over the next hill because it comes from space and ‘we don’t do things in space,’ that’s just not acceptable,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright also addressed the military’s space radar program, which he acknowledged had gone astray in recent years. Previously, the military worried about tracking large units on the ground, like armored vehicle brigades. But in the post-September 11 world, the military and intelligence communities became much more interested in tracking at what Cartwright called the “entity level.” Military planners sought a space radar system that was capable of tracking at the entity level, “whether it’s a vehicle or a person,” he explained. But this was a requirement that proved impossible. The military “had to get real,” Cartwright acknowledged. “It doesn’t make sense. We cannot chase entity-level targets from space.”

Instead of an all-encompassing space radar program, what is really needed is an integrated system whereby different platforms in both air and space are used for different things, and targets are handed off from system to system. Entity-level targets are better chased with platforms closer to them, like unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft. Cartwright said that he was agnostic about “the domain that it came from” as long as he could get the data he required. Once they decided that the requirement could be relaxed, this opened up the technology options. “Does it need to be phased array or is dish good enough?” he asked rhetorically. Those were the kinds of questions that could be answered now that they were looking at an integrated solution, of which space radar was merely one part.

Cartwright also acknowledged that secrecy still gets in the way of cooperation with America’s allies. “If you expect me to share a foxhole with a Brit, but you cannot let me show him what’s over the next hill because it comes from space and ‘we don’t do things in space,’ that’s just not acceptable,” he said. The intelligence community needs to recognize this, and loosen up on the security controls.

One thing that Cartwright did not discuss was something that he brought up only two days later at a different speech reported by Defense News—his belief that the military needs prompt global strike capability, or the ability to attack a target anywhere in the world in under an hour, and preferably in a matter of minutes, possibly using ballistic missiles and space-based targeting systems. It’s a capability that Congress is unwilling to give the military out of fear that the Russians could mistake a ballistic missile launched at Osama bin Laden for a nuke heading their way.

Chasing the intelligence space dragon

Cartwright was followed by Alden Munson, Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Future Capabilities. He said that the intelligence community is currently trying to overcome a number of acquisition challenges, in some ways resulting from changes in the rules governing how the National Reconnaissance Office can operate. Developing reconnaissance platforms today is more difficult than during the Cold War because of fundamental changes in the bureaucratic rules.

Munson noted that in the past, the intelligence community was allowed to do “forward funding” of programs, which was extremely useful for handling cost and schedule problems when they cropped up. Although he did not explain forward funding, what Munson was referring to was a budgetary tool whereby the NRO took what a contractor said that a project would cost, and added 20-30% to that amount when requesting funds from Congress. The NRO then kept the additional money, instead of returning it to the federal treasury, even if the contract did not require it. This gave the NRO director, and program managers, greater flexibility to cover problems as they occurred, rather than defer them and increasing their costs. [Author’s note: NASA officials have also blamed lack of funding flexibility for some of the cost increases in the Mars Science Laboratory program. Clearly it is a universal complaint.] However, in 1995 Congress learned that the NRO had accumulated several billion dollars in excess funds as a result of forward funding. The President fired the NRO director and deputy director and Congress introduced much closer oversight of NRO budgets.

Munson said that during the Cold War, it was in many ways easier to design space-based intelligence collection systems. “Requirements generally exceeded capacity,” he explained, and the customers were primarily inside the Washington Beltway. It was therefore simpler to satisfy the customers and to maintain focus. But the 1991 Persian Gulf War changed all of that. In Munson’s words, the intelligence community essentially went from being a family-owned business to being acquired by a conglomerate—the Pentagon. Now they have to develop systems to meet many different masters and many different requirements.

Munson acknowledged that there have been many studies of military space acquisition reform, but most of these are at the level of the agency and the contractor, which in his view is not where the problems lie. Instead, the real problems occur at a much higher level, with the budgeting cycle and the “stakeholders” as well as with Congress and the Executive Branch.

In Munson’s words, after the Cold War the intelligence community essentially went from being a family-owned business to being acquired by a conglomerate—the Pentagon.

Munson said that there was no way he could talk about acquisition reform without mentioning the failure of the Future Imagery Architecture, or FIA. FIA was a program to develop a revolutionary new series of reconnaissance satellites. After many years and billions of dollars—the exact number remains classified—the government canceled the program. Munson said that the initial goals behind developing FIA were sound. The NRO had a strong interest in reducing the size of their payloads and getting them off of the very expensive Titan IV rocket. He said that arrogance by the traditional reconnaissance satellite contractor also contributed to the NRO choosing “a contractor team with very little domain expertise” (i.e., no prior experience at building reconnaissance satellites). Although Munson never mentioned their names, most members of the audience knew that the “arrogant traditional contractor” was Lockheed Martin, and the contractor “lacking domain expertise” was Boeing. The end result, Munson said, was that “the contract was unexecutable on the day it was signed.”

Today the intelligence community faces increasing challenges. During its peak in the 1960s the military and intelligence communities launched on average 60 satellites a year. By the 1970s that had dropped to 18 satellites per year. Today they launch approximately 12 per year. The military and intelligence communities have “very few programs with very small production runs.” And “almost all the work is done as touch labor by an extremely expensive workforce,” Munson explained. The intelligence community also procures some spacecraft that are unique and for which there is no commercial analogue. “Has anybody ever heard of a commercial sigint provider?” he asked rhetorically.

All of these factors make contracting increasingly difficult. Fixed-price contracts don’t work for research and development programs, but cost-plus contracts provide too little incentive for the contractor to remain honest. It used to be rare for a losing contractor to challenge a decision, but today “bid protests are becoming a standard tool in the kit” for contractors. According to Munson, the contracting process has become much more political, particularly regarding protests, and he knew that everybody in the audience was certainly aware of the Air Force refueling tanker experience.

Munson then offered several rules that he thinks the community should follow. These rules included: don’t start programs you cannot fund, get independent cost estimates, manage requirements, work aggressively to eliminate technology hurdles, emphasize “domain knowledge” by supporting people staying in one field of expertise for long periods, and demand “domain competency” in suppliers. He admitted that the last recommendation is hard to do when the number of contractors who can perform the work is narrowing.

“I don’t care where the data comes from, whether it’s talking to somebody or taking a fifty-cal and putting it between somebody’s eyes,” Cartwright said.

Munson said that the NRO is currently “re-capitalizing” the intelligence satellite constellations it has. One example of this is starting the next generation of electro-optical satellite systems. This is a sole-source contract to Lockheed Martin. “This will be the first of the systems in the electro-optical area where we are not going to make a big performance leap,” Munson stated. The government will sacrifice capability in order to maintain its schedule of getting the new satellites built on time. He also said that the government has decided to get more global coverage by buying commercial satellite imagery.

During the question and answer session General Cartwright said that he believed that 90% of the military’s imagery needs can be met by commercial satellites. He would like to see more “diversity added to the architecture” by building more platforms rather than chasing the remaining 10% of requirements at high expense. He said that last year he and Munson had agreed that rather than having the federal government purchase two medium resolution satellites, they wanted half of four commercial satellites because more platforms was ultimately better, even if they were commercial. “I don’t care where the data comes from, whether it’s talking to somebody or taking a fifty-cal and putting it between somebody’s eyes,” Cartwright said.

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