Working closely with allies and partners offers the Department of Defense an opportunity to build resilience and strengthen deterrence in an increasingly contested space domain.

Senior leaders from several countries spoke to this issue at this week’s Space Symposium, a major annual convention for space leaders. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the commander of U.S. Space Command, for example, invited Germany, France and New Zealand to join Operation Olympic Defender, the U.S.-led multinational space operation. John Plumb, the outgoing assistant secretary of defense for space policy, expressed confidence that the department’s Allied by Design approach to allies and partners would succeed. He noted the successes, such as “our entirely new space classification policy,” but also noted continuing challenges.

The discussion at Space Symposium demonstrates the mixed success of U.S. efforts to build relationships with allies and partners on space initiatives. While the DOD’s work to strengthen allied space cooperation is significant and welcome, it remains insufficient to achieve stated policy objectives and ensure the level of allied integration necessary to prevail against future threats.

There are entrenched organizational, regulatory and practical challenges that limit cooperation, which will require sustained, high-level collaboration and change. We continue to believe that increased cooperation between DOD and intelligence community leaders is needed to address these challenges, and that the United States should increase transparency with allies about both the realistic constraints as well as its commitment to deeper engagement.

These challenges — and recommendations for action — are documented in Rand’s report “Allied by Design: Defining a Path to Thoughtful Allied Space Power,” published earlier this year. We found that decades-old policies and unresolved organizational divides within and outside the DOD contribute to confusion among allies about U.S. space priorities.

These policies and varying organizational priorities within the DOD and intelligence community stem from real questions about which organizations should be in the lead and when and whether it is in the United States’ interest to deepen cooperation, given risks of the loss of sensitive information and becoming overly dependent on allies.

Organizational dynamics, including the multitude of offices in the department involved in allied issues, do pose challenges, but that should not prevent the various U.S. entities from finding ways to work together to solve problems. This is demonstrated by the revised DOD security classification policies and progress observed in coordination between the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Space Command and the Space Force.

However, many issues require coordination from outside of the DOD. One such critical area is revising rules and procedures for sharing classified information with allies and partners — an issue beyond recent policy changes on the DOD classification of space information.

The DOD and intelligence community have separate policies on sharing classified information with allies. The DOD policy, for example, dates from the 1970s from the National Security Council and requires military organizations to gain permission from foreign disclosure officers to release documents. The intelligence community’s different procedures for marking documents often lead officials to overclassify information and limit sharing.

Further, as Plumb noted in his remarks at Space Symposium, data collected from space “is differently classified if the DOD is flying the satellite” rather than the intelligence community.

Beyond the rules, staffs face practical challenges: The relevant information technology systems often make it challenging to seamlessly communicate with even the closest allies. Allies consistently made it clear to us that the inability of the United States to share information frustrates cooperation.

Recognizing that these are deeply rooted issues that require coordination between the DOD and intelligence community, our report proposed that the deputy secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence form a focused working group to address this topic. We originally recommended engagement at this senior level prior to the announcement of the revised DOD classification guidance because only the secretary and deputy secretary oversaw DOD stakeholders involved in space issues.

Accounts of the DOD’s progress to date indicate that progress required “herculean” efforts of working closely with the DOD, the State Department and the intelligence community at senior levels, which enabled Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks to approved the DOD’s new policy on the classification of space information.

The progress to date, as well as ongoing delays in revising intelligence community rules, suggests continued engagement at senior levels between DOD leaders and their Office of the Director of National Intelligence counterparts will be necessary to achieve interagency progress.

As we described in detail in our report, the road to thoughtful allied space power is steep and requires commitment to make progress. Whatever happens, the United States needs to be more transparent and consistent with allies and partners about the realistic prospects for cooperation. Being forthright about the prospects for cooperation will enable allies and partners to make choices about their own investments and operations that will strengthen future coalition capabilities.

Andrew Radin is a senior political scientist at the think tank Rand, where Bruce McClintock is a senior policy researcher and leads the Space Enterprise Initiative. They are lead authors of the Rand report “Allied by Design: Defining a Path to Thoughtful Allied Space Power.”

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