How well does the U.S. work with its allies when it comes to space?

I speak with Bruce McClintock, Senior Policy Researcher and lead of RAND's Space Enterprise Initiative, about how well the U.S. is working with it's allies.

We all share life on this big blue rock, and we all share the space around it as well. So in order to get the most out of it from a business and defense aspect, the U.S. is going to need allies. So how are the relationships between the U.S. and strategic partners when it comes to space-related goals? The RAND Corporation was recently tasked with looking into that very topic. To learn more about what that research found, I got the chance to speak with Bruce McClintock, Senior Policy Researcher and lead of RAND’s Space Enterprise Initiative.

Interview Transcript: 

Bruce McClintock So in about the 2022-time frame. Lieutenant General Whiting and he was at the time was in Space Operations Command commander, a Beatles commander in United States Space Force, asked Rand to take a close look at how the US was currently cooperating with select allies on space operations matters and where they’re all ….. those relationships. So that was very active in the project in that time.

Eric White All right. And so, in looking through that, you know, what entities did you speak with, and how did you go about trying to find out those answers for them?

Bruce McClintock So we used a very rigorous approach where the project started off by. Well, throughout the course of the project, we conducted over 140 interviews with more than 115 people that represented 24 different organizations. And those organizations included representatives from select allied countries, NATO Space Center, …, Space Command headquarters, EUCOM headquarters, several Department of Air Force organizations all the way up to senior policy level. And then below, on top of those interviews, we actually conducted 13 different site visits, to include visits to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, and then several U.S. military networks. In conjunction with all that, we then analyzed close to 200 different documents, ranging from U.S. policy documents to plans for space operations to country specific documents. So, it’s a pretty rigorous, very holistic approach to conducting the research for the project.

Eric White All right. And so, then the next question is what some of your findings were. So, let’s go through it. You did a lot of site visits. You talked to a lot of allies. When it comes to space and U.S. space policy, you know, what were some of the concerns that that you were hearing from counterparts in other governments?

Bruce McClintock So one of the most common things that we heard from counterparts in other governments are what they often euphemistically referred to as the gap, or the policy or practice gap, if you will. And what they mean by that is that the U.S. was often cited as being very much publicly committed to integrating allies in the space activities and operations. But at the end of the day, in many cases didn’t deliver at the level where it was stated publicly.

Eric White Were there any, you know, examples of this that you can give me that were brought up? And, you know, I don’t need you to go through the litany of, of any policy failures, but just an example of what they meant by that.

Bruce McClintock Sure. So, you know, one of the most frequent, especially in interviews with specific allies, one of the most frequent examples that we would encounter once the failure of the US in many cases to fully include exchange officers from other countries in space related discussions or activities. And I think it’s an important distinction here. In the U.S. parlance, there are two types of foreign officers involved in activities. There are liaison officers, which are officers that represent the interests of their country, but their liaison with the United States. So, it’ll be a representative of their foreign country that might be assigned to the US or another nation as a liaison. On the other hand, there are exchange officers which are intended to be a foreign national that are embedded in the US positions of filling US roles and responsibilities. And often what we heard was that means these allies will put into exchange ops or billets. And were told they were going to be doing a specific job in support of US national interests. Often weren’t given access to information that was necessary to perform the job that they were posted to. But that’s just one example. There were many others, but that’s not that was a very common.

Eric White Yeah. This comes down to you know, disclosure policies. I mean, the U.S. works in many arenas with its allies, whether it be, you know, on the waters or even in ground operations or anything like that. My question is, why is space such a vexing problem for when it comes to what information we can disclose to our allies and what we can’t? What exactly are the hurdles? Or, you know, is it just, you know, bureaucratic? Oh. I’m sorry. You know, you should have access to this, but you for some reason, don’t.

Bruce McClintock So I think it’s a combination of at the highest level and it’s just an evolution, based on information sharing between two different major departments in the U.S.. So that’s Department of Defense and intelligence community. At that very high level, even though their guidance flowed originally from the same executive order, they’ve both taken different approaches to that kind of process for information sharing. And then it does flow down because of that high level disconnect between those two organizations. It does flow down to lower levels, where there are essentially bureaucratic impediments that could be overcome, but there’s not necessarily motivation to overcome those impediments that exist.

Eric White Yeah. And what were some of the solutions that you all garnered? And then we can also get into some of the other, other aspects of this report. But as far as that solutions go. What is the idea there of, you know, making sure that everybody is at least on the same page when it comes to information sharing?

Bruce McClintock So one of the one of the very high-level things we recommended was that we thought there should be a deputy secretary defense level coordination effort with the ODNI. Obviously, director of National intelligence that really spanned that divide between DoD policies. And what is generally referred to as the ICC, the intelligence community policy on information sharing. And that that would be a very high-level effort, a working group if you will, that we thought would take a couple of years, but we thought we could be that high level because there are still disagreements within DoD components and uncertainty about their own internal DoD roles and responsibilities. So, because of those two aspects, we recommended a very high-level working group billet.

Eric White We’re talking here with, Bruce McClintock. He’s a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation and also the lead of the Rand Corporation Space Enterprise Initiative. So, let’s get a little bit more holistic here. What is the optimal amount of coordination that needs to happen between the U.S. government and its allies when it comes to space? What would be the ideal situation there?

Bruce McClintock I’d say before we get into the actual optimal level of involvement, I think the first step to the United States is just come up with a coherent holistic policy on involving our allies, and that doesn’t exist right now. That contributes somewhat to the capacity do gap problem. Some of the outstanding options, and one of the things that we would say more about holistic approach is it’s not every ally is going to be treated the same way. Right. So, this isn’t about opening the floodgates that we will and sharing everything with every ally. There needs to be a thoughtful approach to how much we’re going to share with people allies. But the US need to be clear upfront about mutual relationship levels so that that’s point one. I would note on that. Once you have decided on those different levels. And by the way, this is what this is a relationship that goes two ways. There are different allies that want different levels of interaction with the United States. Not every ally wants to be fully integrated with beyond states in terms of space operation. And that’s, of course, their national sovereign right. So, both sides need to be clear with each other. Once you establish those different relationship level expectations by ally, then you set up a U.S. structure that addresses those different levels. And the U.S. has made some progress in this area. Some of that starts with just basic information exchange and information sharing at the fully unclassified level. So, this is not always about having a very highly qualified conversation. That makes sense.

Eric White Yeah it does. And you know, not to be you know, two to our own horn or anything. We’ve got a pretty good space program especially you know; we’ve got the Space Force that now is doing its own thing. What exactly does the U.S. need or rely on its allies? You know, the major allies out there? You know, since their space programs may not be as advanced, what exactly are is the U.S. getting from these, allies in the space arena?

Bruce McClintock Two broad terms to describe what the advantages to working with allies, because the US don’t have a very robust, very strong space program when you speak about national security in general. But the first thing I would talk about is coverage of sector one, diversity. And there are other aspects that we could talk about later in life. So, the coverage thing, I think, is the one that is arguably the most important commercial quality, because space is not just about putting things on orbit, it’s also about being able to detect, characterize and track things that are on it. And that requires geographic locations across the globe. Right. So, we’ve been doing a little use of the parameter space power. Now we need geographic access to other territories to be able to improve our space situational awareness network and also our space domain awareness infrastructure. And the same is true for potential future adversaries like China. Like, so we’re out pursuing locations to be in the satellite tracking territory and not China. So that’s one very obvious example. It’s the information sharing like space situational awareness, which is the most fully developed program in the U.S.  The U.S. has a large number of agreements signed with other nations and other entities or SSA Galaxy. So that goes to the coverage piece. But there’s also value in diversity and space capabilities. Things like things that are on orbit but also ground stations become more vulnerable to threats. It’s good to have a diverse set of resources available.

Eric White Are there other areas. And you talked a little bit about it as far as intelligence sharing and coordinating with ODNI, are there other areas where the U.S. government works with its allies, you know, in other arenas that these space policy folks can draw from and see? Okay, so that’s how they do it. You know, maybe we can apply that idea when it comes to, coordination on the space end when you’re up, up higher a little bit.

Bruce McClintock So for our research, we took a pretty close look at a couple of other domains to draw lessons in best practices from those other domains. And the first area that we looked at in particular was nuclear weapons cooperation. For a couple of reasons. We thought that would be an interesting case. First of all, nuclear weapons will probably be most carefully guarded about capabilities, most sensitive, even more so than space capabilities. And so, we wanted to see if there was even any potential share at that level. And there was, in the mid-1950s, we had the United States had exceptional capabilities in that domain, but the Soviet Union was a threat to us. And so, the United States worked closely with the United Kingdom to come up with, neutral …. That were related to nuclear weapons. There was some level of data sharing between the United States and United Kingdom. And there was other, information exchange and coordination that, was important if you consider to be best practices. We also looked at, special operations, any newer area where there has been much touting about being able to cooperate with allies and share information in a way that hasn’t been demonstrated yet in inspection of it. So those are two areas that we looked at. Looked at the two others, two clearly are in charge and sharing opinions, see, and the three primary areas limiting jamming.

Eric White All right. And so yeah, there’s really nothing more that you can say about what’s at stake when you talk about nuclear weapons, but what’s at stake when it comes to space. And, you know, if we don’t get this right as far as working and we’re getting the most that we can out of these relationships with our allies in that domain.

Bruce McClintock I think it, I’ll start at the lowest level of what’s at stake. It’s just a reduction in efficiency. And by that, I mean, in some cases, if allies feel like they can’t depend on the US to share important national security related information about space, then these allies that have significantly more limited resources than the United States has, they feel obligated to invest in their own capabilities for things as simple as space situational awareness, which I talked about earlier, whereas we had a much more robust information sharing, relationship where it was maybe not fully reciprocal, but it share the pieces of information that they could invest, that those resources in other aspects of space security that could be to the benefit of the U.S. So that’s one example. It’s reduced efficiency if we just don’t cooperate as well with our closest allies. If you move up the scale in terms of the significance of the impact, the adverse impact. If we don’t, find ways to become allied by design. There are things like reduced trust and willingness to depend on the United States in times of crisis when it comes to space. So those are now obviously more extreme, but they are package, and I don’t feel like they could count on the United States to share information when the quote unquote chips are down. Then they sometimes say, well, we need to figure out ways to be not only independent but have our own capability. And then there’s less of a need for them to turn to the US on geopolitical policy decisions.

Eric White Wrapping up here, I’ll give you a chance to say anything else on this topic that you think is important for the conversation. But if you could run through also just, you know, some of the other recommendations that you all made, based on what you found in, you know, talking and also what did DoD have to say about this? I guess we could actually ask them and include them in this.

Bruce McClintock Yeah. So I would say as far as what the DoD has to say about this, first of all, you know, I applaud the Department of Defense, starting with, Gerald Whiting for taking an interest in this topic and asking somebody like Rand to look at it because they knew that they were going to get an independent, objective and rigorous analysis of the problem. That we weren’t going to just tell them what they wanted to hear. So not only by initiating process, but then listening to throughout the course of the last couple of years and they provided preliminary insights and recommendations on our final findings and recommendations. I want to applaud, you know, the Department of Defense for being so willing to listen, because it’s not always easy to listen to something that might be tough love. They’re not telling you exactly what you want to hear. And in that vein, I think over the last couple of years, the Department of Defense has taken on some of the recommendation, not all of them by any means, but that’s their prerogative. But they have done things like made expanded the interaction with allies in select venues. So, they have grown and see SPO initiatives that combined space operations in which, you know, that used to be seven nations, it now 10. They’re working on our international space cooperation strategy that was informed by this Rand research. And it’ll also want to applaud a recent announcement from OSD, where they signed a memo that removes a lot of the legacy classification barriers that have inhibited the United States’ ability to collaborate across the U.S. and with allies. Now, that’s a direct example of a recommendation we made, not necessarily because of the Rand report, but in line with the Rand report’s findings and recommendations that the department backs. So, there been great steps taken. There’s a lot more to be done.

Eric White Bruce McClintock is senior policy researcher and lead of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corporation. There is indeed more to the interview. You can find it along with a link to the report at Federal News, or wherever you get your podcasts. Coming up next. Governments aren’t the only ones joining forces to improve national security in space. Some commercial entities are as well. This is the space our on federal news network returning after this break I’m Eric White.

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