You’ll find a pair of interesting at timely reads at two of our favorite blogs on intelligence-related issues, Kent’s Imperative and Arms Control Wonk. The latter blog is the work of Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. We’ve been critical of Dr. Lewis in the past, most notably for his wacky suggestion that the U.S. could avoid the looming “space race” with China, by entering into an arms control agreement with Beijing. Unfortunately, the types of anti-satellite weapons now being developed by China would not be covered by the suggested treaty, and it’s doubtful that the PRC would exchange a program–that challenges our dominance in space–for an American ASAT program that’s been dormant for 20 years.
Still, we’ll agree with our colleagues at Kent’s that Dr. Lewis does approach his work with a commendable rigor and depth that you won’t find in most intelligence discussions. So, his thoughts are worth consideration, even if we often disagree with them.
In his latest blog entry, Lewis notes that the recent termination of the “Misty” stealth satellite program leaves the nation dependent on the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) to replace the current generation of KH-11 imagery satellites, the last of which was launched two years ago. Dr. Lewis observes that the FIA program has its own troubles, and the larger problem facing any, non-stealthy imagery satellite, i.e., their predictability. Spy satellites along in pre-determined paths, making it possible for our adversaries to calculate their imaging windows and conceal their activities when a “bird” is overhead.
And, in the information age, that process has grown easier, thanks to amateur astronomers, widely available satellite tracking programs and the internet. With minimum investment and effort, even a terrorist group can have its own satellite warning program, although such information doesn’t provide a complete analysis of our capabilities. For example, low-tech adversaries can only speculate about the point above the horizon when our coverage window actually begins, or the use of orbital “tricks” to enhance the satellite’s view.
Dr. Lewis hopes that a restructured, effective FIA–coupled with other systems, including “stealthy UAVs–can meet the nation’s imagery needs, without future gaps in coverage. We’d like to share his optimism, but FIA remains riddled with problems; the so-called “small and cheap satellites” (once viewed as a supplement for expensive overhead systems) have never reached their potential, and UAVs aren’t as stealthy as we’d like to think. The Commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command (which owns most of the service’s Predator and Global Hawk platforms) recently commented that China, in shooting down our UAVs, would only be limited by “how fast they could reload their missiles.” Clearly, it will take more than technology alone to ensure future coverage of critical targets.
As our friends at Kent’s observe, one of the best ways to ensure that the collection window remains open is by putting more resources against enemy denial and deception (D&D) efforts. D&D remains a subject near and dear to our hearts, and it’s disturbing that these measures have never received the attention they deserve from the intelligence community. Yes, the DNI has a Foreign Denial and Deception Committee (FDDC) that meets regularly, and each of the major intel agencies has its own D&D division, but in some cases, the output from these organizations is quite poor, and training of analysts remains problematic. Couple these deficiencies with adversary D&D efforts, and you’ll see why there are significant gaps concerning Iran’s nuclear program, Pakistan’s WMD storage capabilities and China’s space program, among other critical topics.
Fact is, the “predictability problem” in our collection efforts extends well beyond satellite coverage windows. Too often, collection management devolves into a bureaucratic exercise, aimed at satisfying a legion of community and operational customers, with minimal disruption among the various platforms. Nothing untoward about that, but when you’re dealing with adversaries that have institutionalized D&D–like Russia, China, Syria and North Korea–a less conventional approach is sometimes required. Recently, we’ve heard of some “special” collection efforts that sound promising–and apparently, generated valuable data–but such initiatives remain the exception, not the rule. Much of our collection remains an exercise in clockwork that can be tracked and calculated by our enemies. Our difficulties in considering–and analyzing–enemy D&D efforts only compounds the problem.
And the window for addressing these issues is closing–both literally and figuratively. Consider the Syrian example. In the mid-1990s, Syria’s denial and deception program was crude and ineffective. A decade later, with a modest investment of resources and extensive outside assistance, Damascus has created the Middle East’s most effective denial and deception program this side of Israel. It’s a program that is posing significant collection challenges for Syria’s arch-enemy–and the United States. Without a better approach to collection systems, operations and enemy D&D, those challenges will only grow, as will the threat to our national security.