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22 June 2007

Imaginary constellations

America’s warfighting strategies (and much of the assumptions underlying its diplomacy, although this is rarely admitted) relies heavily upon the belief that we have, and will retain, information superiority through aggressive intelligence collection using unique national technical means that will provide such a decisive advantage as to render enemy actions (and even in some aggrandized versions, their intentions) transparent to our watchful eyes.

But we are entering a time period wherein we are not the only kids on the block with cool toys. (For evidence of this, one can look to the recent profile of a new Israeli system, written by Former Spook. Other such capabilities are not entirely dissimilar.) Commercial capabilities have also proliferated, from their humble outsider status in the 1990’s (when no major intelligence organization would accept their potential utility – until the Long War came, when every second of on orbit time was desperately needed and purchased at a high premium.)

Despite all the discussions of smallsats to launch on demand for combatant commanders, and the grand visions of the Future Imagery Architecture, the community apparently continues to fail to design, acquire, and orbit new overhead systems. Haft of the Spear points to the most recent (via Mountainrunner), and this news comes fast on the heels of a recent serious launch anomaly which left a new National Reconnaissance Office payload allegedly struggling to stay within its mission parameters.

Getting birds aloft is a damn hard business – the very definition of rocket science, and the engineers and specialists (almost always contractors, as the USG simply cannot keep such expertise in house with so few active programs) who carry out the task must contend with multi-decade procurement cycles, constant budgetary uncertainties, and reams of bureaucratic and auditing drag. It is therefore no wonder that we have seen such a revolution in the development of air-breathing platforms and sensors during the Long War, yet almost no real progress in other critical areas of the collection architecture.

We are reminded of one of the great debating exercises which were used earlier in our careers, to help new analysts understand the natural tensions and tradeoffs inherent in the collection management process. During these discussions, the bright young things would be given a series of competing missions and a limited resource pools, and have to fight amongst themselves to serve them, including options involving the introduction of new future capabilities. Some very innovative answers came out of these processes, and many of those were already being attempted – or would become program options in later years (good ideas are often re-discovered when minds of a similar bent are turned towards the same problems.)

But we are struck now at how many of these discussions which involved planned future systems simply may never come to pass. While the instructional value of the exercises was, and will always remain, something of value; from the perspective of hindsight it nonetheless reminds us of the European princelings that would march their illusionary armies across ever more elaborate war game boards as the waning years of Continental warfare relentless stripped away their options for actually employing their power in the real world.

This must change, and quickly, if all of the plans for near-perfect situational awareness and information dominance are to have any meaning at all. The fog of war is not easily overcome, and if we fail in the continual striving against it, we will once again face new and terrible intelligence surprises from entirely unexpected quarters. This cannot be allowed.

We do not seek to defend any specific program, and the new DNI's choices in the matter may well be the best possible step in right direction towards fixing the terrible mess that has developed after the chronic under-investment of the 90's and the inexorable surge demands of the Long War. But there will always be a set of stars in the night sky that will remind us of all that might have been, and hopefully to spur us (and our counterparts) onwards towards what is needed next.

In From the Cold has more, including a more detailed analysis of the reasons behind what once was considered a critical asset - and the reversals of fortune it suffered.

We also second most strongly his comments regarding the poison of the leak culture. It is the toxic byproduct of politicization, and the bane of every professional who has seen programs burned, and blood and treasure wasted to satisfy the vanity or the vitriol of those that would break their oath.

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