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21 February 2008

Imaginary constellations meet visionary capabilities

We rarely comment on ongoing matters in the intelligence world due to the natural restrictions which accompany a professional’s responsibilities. However, the very public intercept of USA193 does touch upon an issue that we have previously discussed in these pages – the disconnect between what assets those planning for the future intelligence community thought they would have, and those that exist in an IC in which we have gone to war with what we actually have.

The shot itself has been extensively discussed by others, including In From the Cold, Arms Control Wonk, Ares, Danger Room, and many of the more mainstream blogs. We will not rehash these public details.

However in this particular instance, we find the contrast between the notional pieces on the chess board (and the detritus they left behind when the model came tumbling down) quite striking against the very effective real world capabilities offered by one of the most condemned warfighting concepts of recent history - hit to kill. These differences are also at the heart of the classic tensions between intelligence and operators. But it also demonstrates the value of innovative vision – and the need for persistent effort towards what may seem an unachievable goal. The operation also shows the adaptability of those capabilities towards missions that may never before have been conceived – particularly when the tools to execute them were first on the drafting boards.

The debates of the past few decades across all of the systems involved, and last night’s operation itself, also brings to mind the Bill Whittle’s now seminal essay on Tribes. The defense space community gave the public an unprecedented glimpse of world of the Gray at the high frontier. The press briefing (found here) is as specific a discussion as ever has occurred regarding a once entirely classified area. One has to remember that only a few short years ago, even the name of the National Reconnaissance Office was not publicly acknowledged – let alone the kind of systems of systems approach evident in this operation. But the briefing also displays strong analytic tradecraft, and an excellent use of estimative language to communicate intelligence and operational information in a transparent manner. It was indeed an impressive display, and is well worth studying for those that are in the business of facing tough talks.

Altogether, this was a unique mission, and those involved will be able to look back on the operation with pride. They have most deservedly earned the drinks being poured last night and this morning. Space control has a new face. Let us hope that this will also be the symbol that inspires future generations of capabilities on the intelligence side of the house, and the desire to avoid any other holes in the imagined sky.

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