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10 December 2007

Once and future NIE’s on space programs

One of the great benefits to intelligence scholars in recent years has been the great number of declassified documents released from the archives, carrying significant – if often obscure – historical value. We speak not of the too common game that attempts to use such releases to catch out some supposed error of process or embarrassment of policy from decades past, revived into the current political debate. We feel such shallow attempts serve only to discredit too much of what real history can be pursued using these unique primary documents. Unfortunately, too many of those now writing on intelligence are not interested in history or tradecraft, but rather sensationalism and agenda. Despite this unhelpful trend, there are many fascinating elements to be found in the old documents for those truly interested in the study of intelligence.

Among these items, we often find surprising parallels that help to instruct perspectives on current situations through the examples of the craft of an earlier time. Our case study today comes out of our continuing interest in the development of non-state space programs, and the intelligence challenges and opportunities that these programs represent.

We note the recent news that low cost private space launch will feature prominently in the international scene during 2008 with new initiatives by a major corporate player. The news itself is interesting for those grappling the questions of assured orbital access and space control – something that the industry investment analysts are no doubt covering to a far more comprehensive degree than the intelligence community itself at this point. (After all, even NASA is seeking to leverage private sector capabilities in this area.)

Yet historical synchronicity comes when one reflects upon the older (and now declassified) National Intelligence Estimates discussing the Soviet space programs of the earliest generations in the 1960's, through the late stages of the Cold War in the 1980’s. (Many of these products may be found at the Federation of American Scientists site.)

One cannot help but be struck by a sense of having seen this before, in slight variation. While any estimate of current and future commercial space operations would certainly not be in itself a threat assessment, the framework from which most analysts would begin to approach the questions of dual use and non-state capabilities begins to hint at the what might emerge in the long out years given the inevitable involvement of other, less reputable firms as the industry matures and barriers to entry decrease. We think such an assessment – from a notional futures scenario perspective – would make for an excellent student exercise aimed at encouraging more creative, imaginative, and strategic intelligence analysis.

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