The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University hosted a small working group on U.S. Space Assets on Monday that focused on resiliency, rules of the road and deterrence. As with many other discussions of American strategy these days, if there was one consensus, it was probably that the status quo and current institutions are woefully insufficient to support and pursue long-term American national interests — in this case, in space.
Much of the debate on Monday would be readily familiar to anyone who has discussed strategy in space recently – problems with the verifiability of many potential or proposed international regimes, the importance of freeing American aerospace industry from the constraints that sap their global competitiveness, the lack of a coherent, long-range national policy, etc. But while much of the agreement and disagreement over what ‘should be’ would might have been readily familiar to those who involved with longstanding debates on the subject, one question stuck out.
The policy, think tank and defense circles in Washington, D.C. in particular can all too quickly devolve into echo chambers where the same old debates only intensify. But an advisor to a key policy maker asked a different question: what is the first step? He wanted to understand not just where the U.S. should be (like the rest of us, he had his opinions on that), but rather what was the first step to getting there? It is a practical questions grounded in the realities of current constraints. Fiscal austerity is now extending into a long-bloated and insufficiently disciplined defense budget. And in an era of fiscal austerity, which programs do we take money from? How do we transition in practical terms to a new paradigm of thinking, requirements and acquisition? Such periods are dangerous for longer-term capabilities of strategic value because entrenched, established interests exert disproportionate influence on budgetary choices.*
In my short time here, perhaps the one theme I have harped upon is the lack of American strategic and grand strategic thinking — specifically the concise, coherent, consistent and efficacious voice that those interests lack in national policy and decision making. This is a point that is perhaps all too easy to raise and all too hard to translate into pragmatic advice for a policy maker. So I open the question up to the readers of this blog: if one were to be limited to a single, concise and salient point, what is the one piece of advice that one would choose to elevate to policymakers as a pragmatic first step to facilitating bureaucratic, institutional, organizational and budgetary change more consistent with American national interests in space? The emphasis here would be on institutional evolution to be both more rapidly responsive and agile and also governed by consistent principals in the long term. These may initially seem like contradictory concepts, but the question that was posed is how do we bring acquisition and decision making into line with timetables consistent with commercial timelines (the Pentagon is far too slow in this regard today – and this is true far beyond the realm of space acquisition and policy) and at the same time have these decisions grounded in consistent, long-term strategic and grand strategic thinking (as was the case with, for example, War Plan Orange)? What is the first step to effecting real change and evolution in the bureaucracy?
*As before, I highly recommend David E. Johnson’s Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 for a historical example of two different potential dangers in the effective management of emerging capabilities: on one hand, neglecting it as the tank was or effectively drinking one’s own kool-aid as was the case on the other hand with the Army Air Corps and strategic bombing.