Experts Worry Secrecy Will Hinder Space Acquisition Reform

The overclassification of space systems makes it harder to achieve the procurement reforms that military space needs, policy experts argued at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington.

Pentagon officials said collaboration with the intelligence community helps keep those who need to be informed in the loop, for example by splitting acquisition authorities for certain programs between the Defense Department and the IC. But, if the military can’t describe the threats facing the U.S. in space, and can’t talk about what technologies might be able to help, that silence could stymie outreach to commercial industry and hinder faster, cheaper, and nontraditional approaches to developing and fielding new tools.

“We can’t be so classified that we don’t reform … how we buy our stuff,” Doug Schroeder, oversight executive for space in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, said on a March 9 panel.

For example, about $3.6 billion of the Space Force’s total $10.3 billion research and development request for fiscal 2021 funds classified programs. Officials in the Department of the Air Force also frequently point to frustrations that arise in daily space operations when Airmen can’t share information with others in the Pentagon or across international lines.

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett has pledged to cut through some of that red tape, and Steve Kitay, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space Policy, said March 9 that discussions are ongoing about how to improve the flow of information.

In a recent interview with Defense News, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein acknowledged stringent classification will make it tougher to convince lawmakers of the merit of certain programs.

“As we go forward with Congress, I think our biggest challenge, quite frankly, is we were able to talk up to the secret level and above inside the Department of Defense in most of our conversations. That’s harder to do with Congress,” he said.

Joshua Huminski, director of the national security space program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, suggested communal Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facilities, or SCIFs, and nontraditional security clearance processes could open new avenues for the Defense Department to show commercial companies what problems need to be addressed.

Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of government policy and strategy at Inmarsat, said the degree to which government and industry can discuss what comes next will make a big difference in how much companies invest in new technologies and experiments and look for partnership opportunities.

“The partnership and the exchange of information enriches the investment of the commercial sector,” she said. “As a satellite owner-operator, it is in our inherent interest to be able to ensure that we can protect and be able to provide services from our satellites to a ground station and to all of our user community through a number of different environments, to include a contested environment.”