High, Flying Adored

The U.S. under the Warlord may be a Rogue Power; or perhaps a beefy, almost naked and sweaty mora standing at the Hot Gates; or just an incompetent Outsourcer. For sake of discussion, offer any political science (or snarky, if you prefer) template that comes to mind. Let’s just call it (noun). We’ll skip bomb threats at campaign HQs, planted questions at farcical debates or Russian withdrawal from treaties in Europe. Tonight we note that the (noun) is finally visiting the eye doctor.

I’m the NRO, and always will be

We’ve mentioned serveral times the catastrophically delusional NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) Future Imagery Architecture program and its inevitable collapse. The new NRO Director, Scott F. Large is scrambling to recover from that Charlie Fox (note the program name).

The new system, known as Basic, would be launched by 2011 and is expected to cost $2 billion to $4 billion, according to U.S. officials familiar with the program. They discussed details on condition of anonymity because the information is classified . . . Officials said the Pentagon is considering a range of options, but the new program is expected to be significantly less ambitious than the one it is meant to replace. Options include developing an entirely new photo-imagery satellite or a derivative of a commercial imagery satellite, buying a commercial satellite or leasing existing satellite capacity.

U.S. commercial satellites currently can make out the outline of a two-foot- long object from space. In April, a satellite will be launched with the ability to see a 16-inch object. By 2011, that capability is expected to narrow to nearly 10 inches.

Industry officials said the contract probably will be for a commercial or commercially derived spacecraft because of the time and budget constraints and the government’s apparent desire to maintain control of the satellite.

This minor story highlights a growing paradox for the noun’s Permanent National Security State (PNSS). The apparat always seeks its own power maximization; by definition that means developing internal solutions. Surveillance platforms — airborne and space-based — historically are the epitome of this maxim. Who else (besides the PNSS) could fund and command bending metal to push beyond the state of the art? Yet, even here, the PNSS finds the sand eroding beneath it. Its ability to develop solutions internally is in disarray. Commercial satellites are not new, the original being SPOT. But the almost holy sanctum of KeyHoles and Coronas is now busted open.

One could argue that more commercial satellite alternatives give the NRO leverage against the same failed Iron Triangle contractors. Yet, this diffusion of technology is a two edged alternative — those same capabilities are available to the unwashed. You know, news organizations, foreign powers, ad hoc groups. Perhaps one day bloggers. This is both a psychic blow to the PNSS and new operational burden.

The operational and security issues go significantly deeper than the obvious need for the U.S. to develop more multifaceted maskirovka techniques. A few years ago (say circa 2003), we had a number of conversations with senior level DARPA personnel about their growing alarm over the U.S. reliance on COTS (commercial off the shelf) or even custom chips from Asia or elsewhere. Who could vouch for the security of the design? Imagine the time it takes to understand one single chip? For example, we know the Russians didn’t bother, they just copied ours, including mistakes and test markers we placed there to verify the Russian copying. Imagery, of course, is above all a system of systems — the complexity and security aspects raised to the nth degree. And we are not just talking about hardware. Just recently, DoD started voicing concern that the U.S. is simply importing chunks of software code without the means of knowing exactly what it is. We have reason to think about it. After all, the U.S. in the 1980s slipped the Sovs defective tech and sabotaged the Siberian pipeline: big boom.

A noun’s PNSS ultimately is overcome by societal trends and designated opponents (foreign and domestic) when its internal host economy loses the capacity, means and will to maintain world class capabilities. The Soviets and their empire are the most recent examples. Are we at a tipping point? Can a society dedicated to (reckless) financial arbitrage be a (noun) for long with a functioning PNSS? History shows us no example.

Signs of twilight here would be the increasing importance of State capital to identify and fund critical technologies that are more advanced commercially elsewhere. Something to watch closely will be the tropism of these commercial vendors to NRO solicitations. The PNSS and Mil-Spec often distort market forces and technological pathways with baroque requirements. In that sense, we have had some heated exchanges with DARPA personnel in the past. The DARPA people asserted that they are identical in function and operate in the exact same way as a venture capital firm. Sadly, no. PNSS capital, no matter how creative for government it may be, can not be a replacement for market forces, particularly for the discipline of capital demanding return on investments in the neighborhood of 30%. And often sitting on the board and owning a major portion of equity. (The less said about the Agency’s foray to seeking cultural pollution pollination *from* Silicon Valley the better).

Noun at least is getting an eye exam. We’ve been looking at the world askew in more ways than one the last few years. Here’s to hoping that, to quote Buck Turgidson, “it would be unfair to condemn the entire program because of a single slip up.”