Date: May 18, 2020 | Outlet: Forbes | By: Charles Beames
Years before COVID-19 stole national headlines, General Hyten infamously described the satellites he was outfitted with as “big juicy targets,” setting off alarm bells that for many are still ringing. A series of changes have since followed, most notably the creation of the Space Development Agency (SDA), an organization dedicated to rapidly buying and launching small satellite constellations to augment the Space Force’s expensive and exquisite architectures.
It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated that Washington’s elite are rarely either enlightened or humble. Rarer still are when both of those qualities are ensconced in one four-star general, topping the ranks within the U.S. military. So when such a leader emerges and exposes the counter-productive over-classification problem as “unbelievably ridiculous,” we should all sit up and take note. Gen. John Hyten is such a leader, and the current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As understated as he is ungiven to hyperbole, Hyten’s decision to discuss the issue openly indicates a problem far more pervasive than even he can elaborate on.
Many people have tried to tackle different facets of over-classification in the military, often with little progress and copious amounts of frustration. The adverse consequences are far worse than the bureaucratic costs; over-classification often cloaks impropriety, poor business decisions, the questioning eyes of Congress and general misconduct such as sweetheart deals, nepotism, revolving door malfeasance and cashing in.
Gen. Hyten’s unique ability to shine a spotlight on a problem is well-known, and his approach to this problem is no different. Jamie Morin, the current VP at Aerospace Corp and former Senate staffer and Under Secretary of Air Force, says that there is a point when too much secrecy is a bad thing—especially with regard to the all-too-common practice of posturing in the space domain. The collective inability to share and collaborate, Morin insists, are real and inhibit our national and economic security. Over-classification has a variety of effects on the space economy, as well as the second space race, ranging from costs, to maintaining the classification apparatus, to limiting data sharing. These are real and counterproductive byproducts of over-classification, but even more alarming is that it stifles the competition of ideas, which is essential to promoting economic and national space security in the 21st century.
The law actually requires this competition but classifying a program has become a clever way to avoid the government work and political risk required to do so. In fact, the Federal Acquisition Regulations spell out in detail how the government is to comply. In reality, it requires a lot more work to compete than draft a simple sole source justification memo, one of the main reasons why a creatively stagnant industry is often unable to address next generation threats. Unnecessary classification distorts the marketplace of solution ideas by severely restricting the supply of creative thinkers. Competition, rather than sole source contracting, drives better value—no differently than when Japanese carmakers began competing directly against Detroit in the 1970s.
Lack of competition tends to insulate the “in” crowd and perpetuate groupthink, further perverting a feigned elitism. Incumbency already gives an earned advantage in a future competition—if that advantage isn’t enough to win, perhaps the incumbent no longer deserves to be the leader.
This lack of competition has now reached a level at which point cynicism is infecting even incumbent contractors, the ones who designed our current architectures but sometimes struggle to avoid them becoming obsolete. To ensure America’s economic security in the second space race, these heritage companies must also be incentivized to lead and compete as much to national security today as they did when space was beginning to emerge as critical national infrastructure. Dramatically reducing or eliminating the classification of projects would allow competing commercial companies to propose off-the-shelf systems, reinvigorate the creative malaise the government finds itself in and light the afterburner on an accelerating commercial satellite economy.
How can that be done? It begins by doing more of what the SDA has started with its low-cost architectures of hundreds of small satellites connecting space sensors directly to actual warfighters. With the Space Transport Layer acquisition already underway, the world is watching in awe. It also means leveraging the recently turbocharged SPEC OTA, increasing its authority from $500 million to $12 billion, to explore augmenting or actually performing legacy missions historically done behind a shroud of secrecy. It means continuing Dr. Karen St. Germain’s groundbreaking NOAA work as she heads to NASA to lead their earth sciences directorate. By reinventing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) weather collection architecture through leveraging commercial satellites for a hybrid architecture, the NOAA will not only get the job done for lower cost but will also incorporate new data types to better understand climate change and its impacts.
It means we must look for opportunities where it makes sense to reduce the sole source contracting of the last thirty years for fear of failure. Early warning sensors for 21st century missile defense, more secure communications for ground forces, and even core technical advisory support to the government ought to be evaluated for opportunities to reduce classification and compete new hybrid architecture augmentation. Rather than hopelessly trying to teach an old dog new tricks, it may finally be time to see if these new dogs can perform new tricks. Because really, does anyone still believe it’s a secret that the U.S. government routinely takes pictures from space?
Finally, perhaps the most pernicious effect of over-classification occurs when it’s used to keep watchdog eyes out that would check an abuse of power, nepotism or sheer bureaucratic laziness. Correcting this endemic problem will help the Pentagon and congressional oversight committees to expose incompetence.
In pointing out the flaws in his own system, Gen. Hyten touched on something of profound significance, the possible coexistence of the thriving national security and commercial space economies. Let’s heed his clarion call and turn America’s creative genius loose to solve its own 21st century national security needs.