Reconnaissance Assets Undercut By Pentagon Infighting
(Source: The Lexington Institute; issued April 2, 2007)

(© The Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.


The U.S. intelligence community faces daunting challenges. Threats have become more elusive. Collection priorities have shifted to languages and cultures that few Americans understand. Security restrictions impede recruitment of personnel. With so many real problems to overcome, you'd think policymakers could learn to suppress the bureaucratic rivalries that create additional, unnecessary difficulties.

Well, no such luck.

It turns out that America's national-security system is so driven by its own internal rhythms that dealing with the enemy often takes a back seat to squabbling over who's in charge and where the money gets spent. Nowhere is that more true than in the Pentagon, which accounts for over 80% of all intelligence expenditures.

The defense department routinely wastes vast amounts of money in its "ISR" accounts -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- by allowing bureaucratic factions to interfere with program planning and execution. Here are three examples.

Several years ago the Air Force came up with a plan to replace its aging fleet of radar planes that track moving air and surface targets. The planes have become increasingly important in defending the homeland and detecting fleeting ground vehicles in foreign war zones. But zealots around defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued against buying new planes, saying that in the future the radar missions should be done from space. That position looks pretty stupid today in light of recent Chinese anti-satellite tests, but the damage is done: the program to build new radar planes was killed in the 2006 quadrennial defense review.

Fortunately, all is not lost. The heart of the canceled program was a secret radar called the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) that could track both stealthy cruise missiles and elusive ground assets. The Air Force has spent over a billion dollars developing the system, and it can be installed on legacy aircraft with minimal sacrifice of its tracking acuity.

But funding for MP-RTIP is now caught up in a second squabble about what items should be included in supplemental appropriations. If the program dies, so will a lot of forward-deployed warfighters who could have benefited from its capabilities.

A second controversy centers on the Army's contention that it should be able to operate its own air force of medium- and high-altitude unmanned reconnaissance vehicles even though the real Air Force has already bought a bigger and more capable fleet.

The Army seems to feel it can't count on the Air Force to provide timely reconnaissance, so it must have unfettered control of its own fleet. But with use of unmanned aircraft proliferating in war zones, that would create chaos -- wasteful duplication of effort, competition over scarce bandwidth, even aerial collisions. It makes no sense to divert thousands of soldiers into missions that other services are already doing when the Army can't find enough troops to police Iraq.

And then there is the friction within the Navy between the undersea warfare community and a service leadership dominated by surface warfare officers. Submarines today are used mainly for conducting clandestine reconnaissance in littoral regions, and there is a surge in demand for their collections from intelligence agencies and combatant commanders.

But as the scope of operation spreads beyond Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf to places like the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia, submariners feel their missions are not getting enough support from the rest of the Navy.

One indication that's true: the U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking control of its own submarines for counter-terror reconnaissance.

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