Today’s competitive national security environment requires vigilance in guarding those secrets that help the United States maintain its advantages. But it is possible to overdo secrecy, and there is a growing consensus among policymakers for changing the security posture in the space domain — to one that better balances secrecy and collaboration.
Rapid developments in space pose both opportunities and challenges for U.S. national security space efforts, with the sheer amount of information available from private space systems expanding and the threat environment worsening. Simultaneously, the national security space enterprise is reorganizing, creating different organizational seams.
The democratization of space is the key driver in the need for change. New companies and countries are operating satellites for the first time, sometimes providing even space services previously limited to superpower governments.
The amount of information available for national security applications from private sources includes commercial geospatial intelligence and signals intelligence services. The very existence of similar capabilities in the U.S. was classified until the 1990s, but today commercial satellites can identify weapons sites, track maritime activity and monitor missile movements, with the government already leveraging this resource.
This surge in activity includes developments threatening to the U.S. and allies alike. More countries now have the capability to disrupt signals, spy on capabilities and threaten satellites, and the threats from Russia and China in particular have become starker. Both countries have been testing counter-space capabilities, raising great concern.
The U.S. is also undergoing a massive reorganization in national security space. A slew of new organizations have launched: the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, U.S. Space Command, the Space Development Agency and most recently the U.S. Space Force. Existing organizations are also changing, with the Defense Department’s main developer of satellites, the Space and Missile Systems Center, reorganized to emphasize an enterprise approach with open interfaces in pursuit of quicker acquisitions and a more agile architecture.
As threats intensify and more actors become capable of collecting information important to U.S. operations, a natural inclination is to hold secrets more tightly. One of the basic rules of secrecy is to compartmentalize, since the fewer people who know, the less likely a secret is to spread. The problem is that the more we classify, the less we can share. Compartmentalization inhibits collaboration — even among trusted government officials and industry partners — sets up barriers to entry for innovative providers, and undermines adaptation to a complex threat environment.
There are valid reasons to maintain secrecy about some U.S. capabilities and activity in space, but the changing space environment is shifting the balance toward a need to better collaborate and share information across organizations and with allies.
Collaboration between the Department of Defense, the intelligence community and other space-related agencies in government is essential in a contested space domain because adversaries will seek to exploit seams between U.S. organizations. When missions and organizations start changing and multiplying, and when compartmentalization is practiced for security, those organizational divides can prevent information from flowing to those who would benefit from it. Multiple, new organizations all seeing the same trends and trying to respond independently can pursue competing efforts that are blind to each other rather than complementary.
These seams are exactly what the 9/11 Commission warned about when it argued for emphasizing a need-to-share culture in intelligence to connect the dots, versus enforcing need-to-know postures to protect secret sources and methods. For space, the parallel is a need-to-collaborate culture.
National security space organizations are rapidly evolving in response to the threat and leveraging new capabilities to carry out their missions. They are also still applying traditional ways of maintaining secrecy that risk reaching suboptimal solutions.
There are four key steps that the U.S. can implement to help avoid this pitfall:
- Regular convening of capability-area strategic portfolio reviews conducted by technically adept staff with comprehensive cross-agency access to compartmentalized capabilities can help to define workable architectures, avoid duplication and head off failure at the seams.
- Careful efforts to ensure industry partners are made aware of parallel programs can help avoid engineering rework and unnecessary relearning of hard technical lessons — a pitfall experienced in the early years of stealth aircraft.
- Where possible, classified systems should be designed to allow sharing of the data they produce while seeking to protect the details of how they produce it.
- New and restructured space organizations, like the U.S. Space Force and the Space Force Acquisition Council, should adopt a “born digital” concept for their headquarters using internal transparency tools to support agile and well-informed enterprise decision-making across classification levels.
Challenges remain for conducting these collaborative activities without compromising security or proprietary interests, but expanding collaboration is essential if the U.S. intends to remain the preeminent leader in national security space.
Jamie Morin is the vice president of defense systems operations at The Aerospace Corporation. He most recently served as director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office within the U.S. Defense Department.