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  • The End of the NRO?
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:15 PM on Aug 14, 2008

    “Radical change” is an over-used phrase, but the proposals of the Allard Commission on US national security space – previewed by commission member Gen. Ed Anderson at the Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville on Wednesday, are certainly radical.

    The commission recommends eliminating the National Reconnaissance Office - the agency that helped win the Cold War, and whose very existence was secret until the early 1990s - as a separate entity and removing executive authority for space systems from the Air Force, transferring both functions into a single new organization.

    “We made the decision to recommend bold steps,” said Anderson, a former Army space commander who now works for consultants Booz-Allen Hamilton, “not just refinements at the margins. If we don’t, we’ll never get there.”

    Formed at the behest of Congress (and named after its sponsor, Colorado Senator Wayne Allard) but chartered at the Pentagon level - the commission was charged with refining the US national space strategy, Anderson said. But the commission quickly found that “there wasn’t one. Inter-agency planning is, to put it nicely, unfocused. No-one is in charge, so everyone thinks that they’re in charge.”

    A prime example is the Space Radar program, terminated earlier this year. Started as a white-world project with the USAF and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Space Radar ended up in the middle of a turf war between the USAF and the NRO, whose official charter is to run all space-based imaging programs, and had finally been transferred to an expensive but ultimately ineffective joint office. “We found that we had been working on it for ten years and not advanced one bit,” Anderson said.

    The commission also found that the budget-strapped Air Force has prioritized traditional missions – F-22s and F-35s – over space programs, leading to slow progress in programs like the Transformational Satellite (TSAT). (Army Space & Missile Defense Command leader Gen. Kevin Campbell, speaking in Huntsville, was clearly concerned that the Army could start fielding Future Combat Systems and find no TSAT in place to support it.)

    Meanwhile, the once-innovative NRO has been bogged down by delays and overruns in new programs (such as the Future Imagery Architecture project) and is instead expending its resources in extending the lives of aging spacecraft.

    Specific recommendations include reviving the dormant National Space Council, headed by the National Security Advisor rather than the vice-President:  the commission found that, absent national leadership, disputes between NASA, the USAF and NRO have been resolved at the Office of Management and Budget, on a resource basis.

    Within the DoD, the commission would establish a National Security Space Authority (NSSA) with its chief carrying two titles:  undersecretary of defense for space and deputy director of national intelligence for space. Anderson describes “dual-hatting” as not the best practice, but essential to provide high-level leadership over both military space and the intelligence community. “We recognized that if we were too disruptive we’d get nowhere.”

    The NSSA would direct a National Security Space Organization (NSSO), responsible for developing, acquiring and supporting all military and intelligence spacecraft, white and black. The NSSO director, a three-star or equivalent, would have two deputies – one for military space and the other for the intelligence world – and the NSSO would absorb the NRO, the USAF’s Space & Missile Center in Los Angeles, the USAF Research Laboratory’s space vehicles directorate and the operational end of USAF Space Command. "There's no longer a need for two separate organizations," says Anderson. "What the NRO did in the Cold War was superb, but things have changed."

    Anderson expects opposition. The timing of the report was “unfortunate”, he says, with the USAF smarting from the defenestration of its leadership. “We don’t want to make this another crucifixion of the Air Force.” Meanwhile, the NRO is likely to dispute the commission’s gloomy view of the agency’s performance. “They’ll say that we’re all screwed up, but we’re still unconvinced, based on what we saw.”

    With a lame-duck administration, Anderson says that the report could go several ways. It could be the subject of last-minute action by the current team. It could be adopted by one or both of the presidential campaigns, as a commitment to new policy and reform, or it could be pushed by Congress, which could (for example) set a deadline for the administration to decide what to do about it. But, he affirms, the commission – which included two former NRO directors, Hans Mark and Keith Hall, and a former USAF chief of staff, Gen. Ron Fogelman – was “overwhelmed by the sad state of affairs in the space community, and that caused us to be committed to getting something done.

    The full report is “at the printer”, says Anderson, and will be out within days or weeks.

    Tags: ar99, space, nro, usaf

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