Space Force, IC’s battle over commercial ISR reignites as appropriators add fuel

More than a dozen sources tell Breaking Defense that tensions between the NGA and Space Force are rising on commercial ISR, with White House officials watching closely.

Turkey Earthquake Damage

Planet satellite imagery shows widespread destruction in central Kahramanmaras, Turkey following the devastating earthquake that struck in 2023. (Image courtesy of Planet Labs PBC.)

WASHINGTON — Over the past year, the three key agency players with control over US space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) — the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the Space Force — have been working toward an agreement on how to split the power to buy products and services from commercial satellite operators.

But according to a dozen government, former government, industry and congressional sources, there has been a notable shift in recent months as NGA has become increasingly concerned that Space Force’s moves could threaten its raison d’etre. Spurred in part by the increasingly public debate, as well as the count down to the annual budget release earlier this month, Biden administration officials have weighed in to try to sort things out.

Now, Congressional appropriators have thrown a bundle of wood onto the simmering flames of this turf battle, with the  proposed defense funding bill for fiscal 2024setting aside $40 million for a pilot program to enable US combatant commands to work through the Space Force to order intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) products from commercial satellite operators.

The fight over commercial ISR has gone far enough that draft language has been floated around the Hill and among tied-in industry representatives that appears to be aimed at cutting the Space Force out of the commercial ISR game for good, according to several sources who have seen it.

“The Space Force is out buying commercial analytic services and giving it directly to the combatant commands. And that is something NGA is supposed to be doing as a combat support agency,” one former IC official told Breaking Defense on the condition of anonymity. “So this is an attempt, I believe, to bring the heavy hand of the SecDef [Secretary of Defense] to an authorities document that says only NGA can do that.”

Under current law and DoD-IC policies, the NRO is responsible for purchasing ISR imagery from commercial remote sensing satellites. NGA is responsible for buying analytical models, processed ISR products such as maps, and other sorts of related commercial services. It is also charged with deciding which users get priority access to all types of geospatial intelligence. (For the detail minded, the governing policy setting out roles and authorities regarding commercial remote sensing is the 2003 National Security Policy Directive-27, which was updated in 2017.)

The Space Force, however, has been arguing that it should be in charge of buying what it calls tactical ISR (TacISR) or, more recently, tactical surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking (TacSRT), from commercial vendors. As Space Force officials have publicly explained, the terms are designed to make clear the service’s view of where the line is drawn between its role as a military service under Title 10 and that of the IC agencies under Title 50.

That demarcation line, however, long has been murky at best and subject to myriad past battles — bureaucratic combat that may be just a precursor for what’s to come, as Space Force leaders increasingly seek to define the mission of America’s youngest military service.

Space Force Wants Commercial Budget Authority

For the past year, the Space Force’s Commercial Space Office has been seeking to establish a new, consolidated budget pot to buy commercial satellite tech, products and services for a variety of missions including TacSRT.

The rationale, according to senior Department of the Air Force and Space Force officials, is the unfulfilled need of commanders in the field for speedier delivery of ISR data and analysis in order to prevail on the future fast-paced battlefields against peer competitors China and Russia. Unclassified commercial ISR products and services, while not the be-all and end-all, can fill a number of baseline requirements for battlefield intel and have the added bonus of being shareable with US military allies.

As a first step, Space Systems Command, which is the primary Space Force acquisition command and parent to the Commercial Space Office, last year set up a “TacSRT marketplace” for unclassified data and analysis that pools vetted vendors, which then can be contracted individually. The TacSRT marketplace is focused primarily on acquiring analytics platforms that synthesize raw imagery and other sensor data into information that can be easily used by commanders.

“The Department of the Air Force identified and reprogrammed $25 [million] of FY23 funds to establish the TacSRT Pilot architecture and procure commercial capabilities to meet Combatant Command needs,” an SSC spokesperson told Breaking Defense. “The TacSRT Pilot program uses space investment funding to rapidly acquire and deliver commercial space-based analytic capabilities to meet CCMD [combatant command] needs. We are currently exploring future funding models to sustain this emerging capability for the warfighter.”

Last June, Commercial Space Office Director Col. Rich Kniseley told reporters that he was pushing to get Congress in FY24 to establish a new program element in the DoD budget that would allow the Space Force to buy commercial space services writ large. The next step, he said at the time, would be to get actual funds into that PE as part of the FY25 budget.

Secretary Austin Presides Over Space Force Change of Responsibility Ceremony

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman (right). (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

However, the SSC spokesperson confirmed, the Space Force’s FY25 budget request contained no funds specifically for TacISR acquisition, nor for the Commercial Space Office’s desired multi-mission budget pot. Nor do the Space Force FY24 documents contain any such requests, though the draft appropriations would put money in the service’s pocket to serve as a contracting agency for commercial TacSRT.

Nonetheless, the service is continuing to pursue “a Commercial Space Integration [program element] in the near future,” the spokesperson stressed.  ”This [program element] would allow the USSF to leverage the full scope of the commercial space innovation and technology development and rapidly integrate those capabilities into our hybrid space architectures.”

“It will be a critical step in delivering space capabilities at the speed of warfighter needs and will enable the Department’s success in Great Power Competition,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Space Force chief Gen. Chance Saltzman is soon expected to sign off on a framework strategy for the service on when and how to use commercial data, services and capabilities. Space Force officials have for months now been finessing a draft of the strategy in order to align it with a DoD-wide commercial integration strategy being put to together by the Pentagon’s space policy shop led by Assistant Secretary John Plumb.

OMB’s Purported Pushback, Space Force’s New Study

While NRO and NGA have long been wary of ceding territory to Space Force, the reason for the lack of a Space Force FY25 ask for TacISR can be laid at the feet of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the White House, which has to approve DoD’s budget requests, according to a handful of administration, military and industry sources with skin in the game.

In essence, these sources said, OMB budgetmeisters are not yet convinced there is a need to upend the current acquisition policy and process — and incur a jump in costs — because there isn’t yet solid evidence that combatant commanders actually have gaping holes in their requirements that warrant doing so. (An OMB spokesperson did not respond to a request for a comment by press time.)

White House policymakers also are loathe to make major changes until there is a clearer picture of both military needs and whether there are fixes that can be made without policy/process upheaval, according to several White House officials.

“What we would say today is, ‘We don’t have enough data to say that the process is broken.’ We certainly know that there’s gaps. We know that there’s improvements that can be made. But for efficiency, the position is, ‘let’s put the requirements into the current process and see how that plays out,'” one White House official told Breaking Defense.

“And then let’s clearly identify where there are any gaps or challenges, and then we figure out as a community, ‘how do we how do we address those and it may be just fixing, improving existing process. It may be that we decide to modify the process,” the official added.

So, the Space Force has set out to demonstrate that need.

Col. Rich Kniseley, the director of the Commercial Space Office, told Breaking Defense in a March 18 email that his shop now is studying what battlefield needs could be filled by commercial space capabilities across a wide range of missions, including TacSRT.

“The Commercial Space Office is working directly with the Combatant Commands to determine the broader scoped wants and needs of space operators and terrestrial war fighters that may be satisfied, in whole or in part, by commercial offerings. This includes ISR (or Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Tracking (SRT) as we term it in the Space Force), Commercial SATCOM, SDA, Weather, PNT, and others,” he said. “This study will directly support future commercial contracts for integration and services conducted by the Commercial Space Office and other partner agencies.”

Meanwhile, numerous sources said, NGA officials also have been lobbying hard against expanding the Space Force’s remit on commercial ISR.

Breaking Defense obtained language — purported to be an excerpt from a draft memo meant for Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks — that five knowledgable industry sources, including several with relevant government experience, said seeks to prevent the Space Force from directly buying commercial ISR data or related analytics, products or services.

“Purpose. I hereby designate the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) as the DoD acquirer of commercial GEOINT imagery. I hereby designate the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) as the DoD acquirer of commercial GEOINT analytic services. These designations further the goals of both National Security Policy Directive-27 and the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between NGA and NRO; …. ” the draft memo reads.

It’s unclear when the memo was circulated and where exactly within the Pentagon. The original version of this report indicated the memo purportedly had been drafted by NGA officials, but following publication an NGA spokesperson told Breaking Defense that while the agency had seen and commented on the memo, the agency had neither drafted the language nor circulated it. The Office of Secretary of Defense, to which the NGA had originally directed Breaking Defense’s questions, did not respond by the time of publication about any involvement by Hicks on the issue.

Despite the behind the scenes drama, relations between the sides seem convivial in public. Frank Avila, the director of NGA’s Commercial GEOINT and Discovery Office, said on March 18 that the agency is working with the Space Force and SSC on TacISR acquisition and suggested there could be a demarcation between immediate and “enduring” imagery and analytical requirements. 

“We’ve actually been working with Space Force, SSC and the leadership that’s working Tactical SRT,” he told the Satellite 2024 Conference here.

Asked by Breaking Defense about apparent overlap between the Space Force’s TacSRT pilot program and NGA’s own work, Avila explained that the two efforts have a slightly different focus.

NGA in January launched a new program designed to greatly expand intelligence and insights gleaned from unclassified sources for use by US and allied analysts, called Luno-A.

“The way we see it is, the goal of the [Space Force pilot] is really to go after immediate and short-fuze requirements. Somebody needs an answer now, and … for this one instance, [not] for 10 years,” he explained. “We’re looking at providing solutions to address sustained requirements. We do a lot of evaluation in the solutions to ensure that they’re trusted solutions that can meet the needs that we’re addressing at the accuracy level that are needed.

“So, we are collaborating quite a bit in the work that they’re doing and there’s, if you will, different spaces that we’re operating in,” Avila added.

Appropriators Thrown Down, Sharing The Imagery Love

House and Senate appropriators, for their part, have clearly come down on the side of the Space Force with regard to commercial acquisition of TacISR.

The funding add in the FY24 budget for “CCMD direct commercial surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking services” is based on language from the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee markup — and sets the Space Force up as the broker between combatant commands and commercial vendors.

That language reads:

“The Committee notes the growing marketplace for commercial service offerings in the world of electro-optical/infrared, synthetic aperture radar, and hyperspectral imaging capabilities. In 242 addition, commercial constellations exist to provide radio frequency and light detection and radar sensing. The Committee notes that with the increasing focus on peer competition in contested environments, the Department of Defense will have to partially rely on new space capabilities that can fulfill traditional title 10 intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target tracking missions as a replacement for existing airborne assets. …

“The Committee believes that the commercial marketplace has matured to a place that can provide services directly to both the Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense. Further, the Committee notes that for tactical mission sets, receiving data in a tactically relevant timeline is essential to the success of a mission and is concerned that the current tasking prioritization may not best suit Combatant Commander needs.”

If passed by the full House and Senate as expected, the FY24 funding for TacISR could translate into another add to Space Force coffers in FY25. It may also, however, serve to undermine the Biden administration’s deliberative effort to find the least disruptive solution to the ISR tug of war.

UPDATED 3/22/24 at 5:20pm ET to include a statement from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency regarding the draft memo.