The Split-Up in Space

April 1, 2006

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne would like to get the service back in the “black,” secret, space game.

The Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office have, to an extent, drifted apart, both at the top and among the rank and file. First, the two agencies lost some of their daily operational contact when USAF’s Space Operations and Integration Office closed in 2002.

Then, this past summer, one of the Air Force’s longest-lived relationships was disrupted. On July 26, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that Donald M. Kerr, a Central Intelligence Agency veteran, would be the new director of the NRO—the Pentagon’s once-clandestine intelligence agency responsible for America’s spy satellite fleet.

Prior to Kerr’s appointment, every NRO director had also been a senior USAF official, but Kerr was not given an Air Force position.

The decision to sever the NRO and Air Force positions was made after heavy deliberations by Rumsfeld and John D. Negroponte, the new Director of National Intelligence. When Air Force undersecretary and NRO director Peter B. Teets retired in March 2005, “all these things then became … up for debate,” Wynne noted earlier this year. Former astronaut and space operations officer Ronald M. Sega became the new undersecretary of the Air Force, but not NRO director. (See “Washington Watch: NRO Job Taken From Air Force,” October 2005, p. 16.)

The debate over the split has not ended, even though the complete separation did not last long.

Kerr was given a newly created Air Force position last October, but Wynne said in February that “roles and missions” still need to be worked out between the Air Force and the NRO. “We know Don Kerr does great work, we know that the NRO does great work, we know that the Air Force does great work,” Wynne said. Yet the question remains: “How do we share, and [what] are the roles and missions?”

Wynne declined to offer a rosy assessment of the Air Force-NRO situation, saying only that the Air Force “used to have a very good relationship” with the NRO.

The two organizations cooperated very closely together in Los Angeles before the Air Force closed the Space Operations and Integration Office. Wynne doesn’t want the relationship to deteriorate any further.

“We want to investigate,” said Wynne. “We’ve talked to the space people about re-creating that capability somewhere closer.” A new joint operational office could be created at Kirtland AFB, N.M., or at the Chantilly, Va., NRO headquarters, he said. Air Force Space Command’s Joint Space Operations Center, which plans and executes unclassified space missions in conjunction with US Strategic Command, could serve as the model for a new USAF-NRO operations and integration office.

Wynne said he and the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, have made a “notional decision” to pursue closer physical collaboration between the two agencies.

Evolve or Expire

Last summer’s announcement that the NRO leadership would separate from the Air Force was puzzling to virtually all and troubling to some. The relationship between the two organizations has been in flux for nearly a year. Because the issues are clearly not settled, it is useful to review developments.

The NRO had been led by a top Air Force official—usually the undersecretary—since the office’s formation in 1961.

Two weeks before the announcement, the Space Command chief, Gen. Lance W. Lord, told the House Armed Services Committee that having the undersecretary of the Air Force as the director of the NRO “is a good way to continue that black and white space integration, because it pays off not only operationally, but … on the acquisition side as well.”

One day after Kerr’s appointment, key members of the Congressional oversight committees registered their displeasure with the split.

In a letter to Rumsfeld last July 27, Reps. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.)—chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee—argued that the split would hamper the Air Force’s ability to oversee national security space activities and would “only serve to compound the acquisition woes that the NRO currently experiences.”

The lawmakers warned that a “weakened role and the ensuing lack of senior Air Force advocacy within and for the NRO will force a decline in the number and quality of the Air Force personnel assigned to the NRO.”

Everett and Reyes, who also sit on the House intelligence committee, urged Rumsfeld to “develop a final comprehensive solution that will address these concerns.”

The concerns were raised in the confirmation hearing for Sega, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would “work to foster a close working relationship with the director of the National Reconnaissance Office.”

It was clear, however, that things would be different. In the introduction of last year’s “National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America,” Negroponte had signaled his willingness to do away with long held practices. The concept of national intelligence will be “collaborative, penetrating, objective, and farsighted,” Negroponte wrote. “It must recognize that … various institutional cultures developed as they did for good reasons, while accepting the fact that all cultures either evolve or expire.”

In a public presentation at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis Fletcher Conference in December, Stephen A. Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said DOD and the Intelligence Community must refashion their forces when necessary.

The fluid nature of transnational threats and non-state actors that dominate the landscape of the war on terror are forcing big changes to the methods of gathering and sharing intelligence. “None of you should doubt that there is a sense of urgency and commitment to transforming intelligence,” Cambone said.

“Change is hard, but we must not permit ourselves to remain wedded to past practices,” he said. “We do so at our own peril.”

Asked about the rationale for the shake-up, Cambone said the Air Force and NRO jobs are both full-time occupations. Discussions between DOD and DNI came to the conclusion that it is useful to ensure that both the Air Force and NRO have someone “present every day, all day, focused only on matters associated with each organization,” he said.

“That would seem to be the sensible thing to have done,” Cambone added. “There is a great deal of change and innovation that is on the way.” He argued that the country doesn’t need defense intelligence and national intelligence, but a single intelligence capability. “We are expected to figure out how to apply it across the range of means,” he said.

Sega said, “In light of the stand-up of the DNI [office], the DOD and the Intelligence Community are in the process of redefining their relationship for national security space matters.”

On Sept. 1, the newly appointed Kerr confirmed that the Pentagon was reviewing the NRO’s role within the Intelligence Community. He said Pentagon officials were considering whether the NRO director needed an Air Force title. Kerr, who had been the CIA’s deputy director for science and technology, said that he considered his new job a “full-time responsibility,” but added he was “not against” having an Air Force title.

Rumsfeld elaborated slightly on the NRO split, saying the new arrangement offered “a good formula.” The task at hand, said Rumsfeld, was to make certain USAF and NRO are “still very closely connected.”

Shortly thereafter, DOD and the DNI decided to renew a formal tie of some sort between the Air Force and the NRO. On Oct. 6, 2005, the Pentagon announced that Rumsfeld had appointed Kerr to a new Air Force post, assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for intelligence space technology. (See “Aerospace World: NRO and USAF, Together Again,” December 2005, p. 14.)

The announcement said Kerr would now support the Air Force Secretary in carrying out his responsibilities as the DOD executive agent for space and ensure DOD and NRO “programs, activities, and operations are properly aligned.”

This move does not appear to be purely ceremonial, as the NRO is dependent on specialized Air Force personnel for much of its daily operations. Lord said he spoke with Kerr at a Corona meeting of top Air Force officials late last year. They spoke about how to “hook the NRO folks in” and make sure the Air Force remains relevant at the NRO. “I think those [efforts] will come together quickly,” Lord said.

The Air Force’s space personnel are vital to the continued success of the NRO. “We’ve got a limited amount of folks in this business,” Lord noted, and 1,300 airmen work for the National Reconnaissance Office. He added, “They’re space professionals; they’re part of our team.”

Restoring integration should “pay off in terms of the systems we build in the future and how we work the taskings and all the things that go with the complicated way we operate together,” Lord said. “That will come as we put the people and the talents together.”

Sega serves as both DOD point man for space activities and as the Air Force space advocate. He is confident that cooperation and innovation between the two organizations will continue. “A constant crossflow of people and ideas benefits both organizations,” he said.

Airmen comprise nearly 50 percent of the Chantilly, Va.-based organization’s personnel. The NRO provides the United States its “eyes and ears” in space by developing, fielding, and maintaining state-of-the-art satellite systems that provide intelligence to everyone from field combat units to policy-makers in the National Command Authority.

Neither Sega nor Cambone would rule out the renewal of a “dual-hatted” leadership structure in the future. There is nothing “specifically precluding” the leadership from being joined again, Sega said—but that decision is for national leaders at another time.

Cambone was equally open-minded. “The question about whether those two offices will be rejoined is a question that maybe this DNI and [the Defense Secretary] will re-engage in some number of years.”

For the time being, Air Force undersecretary and NRO director will remain their own, separate, full-time jobs.

With the leadership split now a fact of life, the Air Force is battling perceptions that it is not a good partner in the intelligence business.

Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg, the director of strategic security on the Air Staff, said some in Washington think the black space and white space communities are “pulling towards disintegration.”

“I want to assure you that, while that may be the perception of some, it is not the perception, … and certainly not a desire, of the leadership of the Air Force,” Burg said at the Air Force Association’s Los Angeles National Symposium last November.

Burg, who oversees space policy guidance for the Air Force, added that the service wants to make sure it continues to work to integrate classified black and acknowledged white space operations. The Air Force wants a “very strong relationship” between Space Command’s space capabilities and the NRO’s more secretive activities.

Exactly how this will be accomplished is anything but obvious.

The NRO—And Why the Air Force Cares About It

The National Reconnaissance Office began in the heated Cold War period when the “Space Race” kicked off—after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 and the US undertook a buildup of strategic space forces, spearheaded by the Air Force.

In 1958, President Eisenhower authorized the work for what would become Corona—the nation’s first photographic reconnaissance satellite system. Corona took its first pictures in August 1960, only months after Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down. (See “Corona Comes in From the Cold,” September 1995, p. 82.) The NRO itself was established in September 1961 as a classified agency within the Department of Defense. Its mission: Develop and operate space reconnaissance systems and conduct national security intelligence missions. The NRO then secretly managed Corona until 1972.

The agency was responsible for, among other things, examining the “missile gap” claims during the early 1960s, and the NRO was a closely held secret.

The NRO’s historical ties to the Air Force’s space cadre have been cited as one of the reasons for the office’s continued innovation. The NRO is a hybrid agency, consisting of an estimated 3,000 personnel drawn from the armed services, the Central Intelligence Agency, and DOD’s civilian force.

The Air Force contributes approximately 1,300 airmen to the Chantilly, Va.-based agency. The existence of the organization was declassified by DOD in September 1992. The first publicly acknowledged NRO satellite launch—on a Titan IV from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.—occurred in December 1996.

Yet, “the disappearance of a single large threat has provided a false sense of security, diverting our attention from national security issues and, for the NRO, resulting in underinvestment,” the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office wrote in a 2000 report.

The commission (co-chaired by Porter J. Goss, the future CIA director) determined that the NRO’s success was driven by a number of perishable factors. The NRO got strength through its status as the only organization responsible for space reconnaissance. Moreover, it had experienced program managers, involvement by the President and Defense Secretary, and staffing with DOD and CIA personnel.

“Failure to understand and support the indispensable nature of the NRO as the source of innovative new space-based intelligence collection systems will result in significant intelligence failures,” the report read.

Working with other DOD intelligence agencies, such as the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the NRO today provides global communications, signals intelligence, and near-real-time imagery to military and civilian leaders.