NRO Remains a Separate Agency in Current Space Proposal Plans

Government

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Sept. 2, 2015) The U.S. Navy's fourth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) communications satellite, encapsulated in a 5-meter payload fairing lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41. The MUOS 4 satellite will bring advanced, new global communications capabilities to mobile military forces. Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance.

The leaked decision to not include the National Reconnaissance Office in the new Space Force structure is a rebuke to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan had outlined a Space Force that left the NRO independent, but Wilson, at the time she announced the Air Force’s estimated initial $13 billion start-up cost for the new service, insisted the NRO should be part of it.

That $13 billion number was largely seen as an exaggeration, designed to scare decision makers into opposing the plan, which would see a large chunk of the USAF move to the new service.

The administration will include its formal proposal for how to create the nation’s sixth armed service when the president’s budget goes to the Hill the first Monday in February. The sausage factory is still churning on the final proposal, but details have started to leak out.

The Intel Community and New Space Force

Marcus Weisgerber at DefenseOne managed to get ahold of a draft of the proposal. Mostly, things go the way we expected them to go. The new service would receive “parts of Air Force Space Command, the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, the Naval Satellite Operations Center, and the Army’s 1st Space Brigade.” But as Weisgerber noted, the document reveals “divergent views among senior Pentagon officials about how to structure” the new service. Most notably, the NRO does not appear to be part of the proposal.

For the longest time, the National Security Agency was slyly called the “No Such Agency” because the government never formally acknowledged its existence. The first whiff anyone in the public got that we had established a national-level signals intelligence unit in 1952 was the Senate’s Church Committee investigations of 1975.

Similarly, the National Reconnaissance Office was established in 1961, but its existence remained classified until 1992. As a TLA—a three-letter agency—the NRO has some clout. (Everyone in Washington knows that in the bureaucratic pecking order, three-letter agencies are more important than those with four-letter acronyms). Last week, that clout was on full display.

Billing itself as “The Nation’s Eyes and Ears in Space,” the NRO is a “hybrid organization” of military, CIA, and DoD civilian employees. The agency manages “unique and innovative overhead reconnaissance systems and conducts intelligence-related activities essential for U.S. national security.” In other words, it own the nation’s spy satellites. As such, it’s a prime candidate for inclusion in the planned Space Force.

There can be little doubt that the planners’ rejection of Wilson’s proposal is the result of the NRO brass flexing their organizational muscle to protect their independence. The NRO is currently part of what is called the “Fourth Estate,” those independent agencies that report directly to the Secretary of Defense. But like the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, as part of the intelligence community, the NRO has a “dotted line” relationship to the director of national intelligence.

That gives DNI Dan Coats a say in the office’s future. My guess is that his staff is not keen to have the NRO dropped in the hierarchy from a direct-reporting unit to one that is subordinate to both a service secretary (still presumably the secretary of the Air Force) and a service chief of staff (or perhaps “chief of space operations”).

There were rumors that President Donald Trump was angry with Wilson over the $13 billion number. While Wilson called the figure “conservative,” noted defense budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies called it “the highest estimate you could possibly come up with.”  He called Wilson’s report “an example of malicious compliance,” meaning she did as she was told, but in a way that contradicted her bosses.

Clearly, the NRO bit back. The NRO owns a large chunk of the nation’s space-based assets. However fantastical the rest of Wilson’s proposal may have been, folding the NRO into Space Force made sense based on the president’s intent. But the TLA looks set get its way.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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