National Intelligence Folly: How a Tragic Unsolved Murder Led to Billions of Dollars of Program Fraud, Waste and Abuse Part 23: NRO FIA Folly, Ramifications and Repercussions: Let the Studies Begin

In Part 22 our series reached a key milestone in the history of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) procurement when the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet issued a tasker to undertake an assessment of the program to determine if continued schedule slips constituted a risk to national security due to the inability to satisfy intelligence collection requirements: and what to do about it.

There were two somewhat major pieces, with one directing the NRO and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) to collaborate on a Joint Management Office (JMO) to assess the status of the FIA program in terms of cost, performance, schedule, risk and options (related to the probability of achieving the (a) schedule.))

The other major task was for NIMA to lead the community in conducting a GAP Mitigation Study (GAP) to determine if and when continued delays/slips in the FIA optical delivery schedule would result in a collection capabilities problem and what could be done to mitigate it.

I mentioned previously that in order to mitigate any gap, we would need to determine-calculate-the timing, extent and duration of it. We were less concerned about-as were most of the principals involved-the cost of any resulting action that would accrue in light of the ramifications.

I also mentioned that many took issue with the characterization of the GAP as an analysis of the “timing, extent and duration,” while observing-often sight unseen or without discussion-that these were redundant terms.

For some time as these briefings and strategy sessions took place, I was reminded of the original discussion with TV of the NIMA Central Imagery Tasking Office (CITO) who opined that we “did one of these studies every year, and nothing ever comes of it.” The briefing that became the GAPstock” or boiler plate that was given ~200 times-if it was done once-defined these terms up front and nobody who ever received the briefing questioned the methodology once it was explained, nor the logic of what was proposed and subsequently approved (and funded) by the DCI.

The reason it took the government so long to take action on an issue that had grown into a problem and was now “festering” on the verge of becoming a show-stopping, “you’re fired” offense for IC leadership is pretty much the same issue that ends most relationships: somebody-that ubiquitous other-“Joe or Josephine Klutzenbomb-” does something wrong and then some combination of pride, stupidity, cave-boy/girl instincts, chutzpah, hubris, pure inability to admit wrongdoing-error-faulty judgement-prevents the apology to make it right, and rides that “wrong train/plane” into the ground.

I’ve been making the case for this scenario throughout this series and dear reader is likely sick to death of reading the insinuation or innuendo (actually, I’ve just plain said it) that senior leaders of our government could be so-well, -vain and stupid at times, but that was the case-is the case-and it is likely going on in another program as I write this (and it’s not in a galaxy far, far, away.)

Two of the top-notch people in government started a tag-team effort to inform those interested in details and lessons learned or insights as this FIA saga played out and it is instructive to hear what they had to say (before I go all anal-Arnie on the details of the GAP.)

Alden “Al” Munson-the Deputy DNI for National Capabilities-was the acquisition “Czar” for the IC, while Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen James “Hoss” Cartwright has been in and out of our story throughout-he was working requirements and capabilities when FIA was all promise, no problems-still in diapers, he was at many meetings of the Saturday Morning Prayer Breakfasts throughout the Cambone era, was instrumental in articulating and implementing relationships between the Pentagon and-USDI-and later the ODNI, commanded STRATCOM, came back as the Vice, etc., Phantom (F-4) driver and one of the good guys.

This article summarizing one of the ubiquitous Swamp forums entitled “Space Policy 101: military space 2009” tells you all you need to know about the problems with FIA-keeping in mind the context that-while it was nice to hear and know this stuff in 2009, there were many of us who won a ticket “on the hot seat” in 2002 that were pretty much pit against a system that would not/could not/should not and did not acknowledge any of these “facts” until long after it mattered anymore: so this is history or hindsight-although no less instructive.

To my not-so-subtle points about problems with programming and budget, inability to be flexible enough to deal with Moore’s Law, delivering yesterday’s technology tomorrow:

General Cartwright discussed some of the dilemmas facing military planners today when acquiring new space platforms. He said that it is an axiom in the military space business that only 30% of a platform’s lifetime is spent on the cutting edge. But what is worse is that the clock starts ticking when the military starts bending metal, not when the spacecraft achieves orbit. If the program is delayed, the satellite can already be obsolete the day it is turned on.

I related the story of the tape robots previously and although I somewhat got carried away with the details-I mean, it’s what I do best-my point was how program managers are not taught-the program and budget procedures do not permit-and the bean counters simply disincentivize any quick-turn technology cycle in the midst of the execution of an approved program: but the undertaking of which (i.e., a technology or risk reduction cycle) is key to staying on the crest of the technology wave represented by Moore’s Law, rather than watching the wave break away leaving you paddling to get ahead of the next one while at least one cycle behind (best case.)

At this point in my story-let’s just plain speak, vice going for the prose award: what the above translates to is the “system” incentivizes executing an approved program, notwithstanding we might know with absolute certainty that the system being delivered is borderline obsolete.

Earlier I termed it a DAWIA and program management bad habit-a worst practice-that delivers “yesterday’s technology tomorrow.”

Right off the bat in most cases it takes a different color of money to do a technology cycle or spiral within the execution cycle of an approved program-depending on your Contracting Officer (or Technical Representative (CO or COTR.) Why would it depend? Well over the course of some 10 years or so I dealt with several changes in policy from one program or project to the next because it is “interpretable” (and you are not one of us😊.) And I had two-year research and development money but doing ops and maintenance was typically one year, but since we had a tape robot already-that was being recapped-so this was three-year money that could not be spent for the other category without permission from somebody “upstairs.”

Our tape robot example did not have the “sting” or “oomph” I sought to achieve because when you are monitoring word counts and length, and humma-and then there is humma-you sometimes do the Joe Friday routine, and it just doesn’t convey the “essence.”

In order to do the pilot project that would eventually replace the robots, I had to either “paperwork” the idea as a delta-change to the approved design, submit all the plans, financials, etc., brief the idea all the way up through the Contract Office Director (the person with the “Warrant”)-to get it approved. Or conversely to sponsor the project via our Technology Lab-but as an experiment “in-line” or connected through a partition to the enterprise architecture: that would require fairly intense security documentation because of the classification of our enterprise.

There were complaints, hate and discontent, sniping-snipers-haters-you name it-with both plans-mostly from my DAWIA acquisition leads about “contractor favoritism” and departing from the approved-and funded architecture, amidst nasty rumors that our program had “too much money” and therefore could afford to throw some away, and also complaints about connecting a device to the architecture that was not Configuration Coordination Board and Security Engineering Council approved: how could this possibly work or be successful if it is not reflected in the enterprise architecture exhibits? Like, put some oil on that wheel so it stops squealing.

The successful project put us at the crest of that wave as our new enterprise burnt-in, and we saved-conservatively-about 28M dollars and put a big ole size 10 boot on Moore’s arse. But I had to answer complaints about it for nearly 10 months-our systems integration and budget team had to jump through hoops completing the documentation-we had to brief everybody in the chain to show what bad dogs we were for going against the grain-why didn’t we think of this while we were getting the design approved, I don’t like your face, right up to and through the aforementioned final design review.

I’m not different, special, or better than anyone else, but to undertake an effort like that takes somewhat of an indefatigable, won’t take no for answer, do what it takes to get it done attitude: under the category of fighting city hall. I personally believe it falls under the category of doing the right thing- but in the current DAWIA-based, program management environment that the government considers a best practice, while producing Stepford acquisition people by the bucketful-that have to be cajoled, convinced, fought, dragged along like kids who can’t get any ice cream, 99.9% of whom would not have even considered such an action because of the paperwork and extra work alone, there has to be some type of change in the way we execute these programs-and it might just involve giving the contractors a little more latitude and flexibility—maybe more freedom of action and maneuver-and incentivizing them differently-and not killing them on award fee if they undertake legitimate efforts that don’t pan out-which is goodness-when it comes to IT intensive segments of the architecture process.

I added a new term to the DAWIA lexicon with some of these risk reduction efforts-“stretch goals”-for instance, roughing out a strategy in the event our prototype is wildly successful and we want to implement it as a change to the architecture (and I already see a DAWIA hand up in the back who wants to know why we don’t just engineer it into the current architecture-why waste time-which is a very good DAWIA point-but very simply-it might not work (another question? Then why are we doing it??) This concept became the source of myriad cartoons in our business unit-most of which were pretty good.

The team recognition we received for the above effort that saved nearly 20% of the program delivery costs (it was a big delivery that included a new data center, several hundred racks, equipment, stuff) was-wait for it-nothing. Our acquisition side of the house at the agency level all of a sudden had a compelling need for something that was 30M dollars that they worked directly with agency leadership: no good deed goes unpunished (colluding and conspiring to keep you from doing things that make us look bad, you non-DAWIA certified “meddler” (another story to follow on that-later.))

The takeaway of Gen Cartwright’s point above also screams commercial imagery. If you spend 3-5 years from let to launch (contract award) you are the definition of a Moore’s law victim. We should put up our monolithic space bus-sized satellites that are great point and area collectors at the cost of a small country’s GDP. Make them redundant, somewhat bulletproof, exquisite, maybe add some bells and whistles to confuse (to put the “F” in “with”) the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans (e.g., “there is a yellow light that flashes and a whistling noise that goes off every 4th revolution, comrade. What is it?”)

Don’t apologize for these massive national space targets: these are not supposed to be Swiss Army knives, but more like hammers or anvils: bullet-proof. Think of them as long-term industrial bottle-caps, Maytag’s-boring, five-year marvels, rinse and repeat. Leave the special requirements and put them on the special projects: don’t confuse the two, as the mainline objectives are the meat and potatoes (MEPOT) of the line.

We haven’t addressed persistence, ubiquity, having a suspenders option in the event that stuff gets real and “somebody” trifles with our MEPOT assets. The US government needs to incentivize commercial-not simply buying data but buying capability. With satellites that are good enough to meet the unclassified, military and coalition partner requirements for mapping, charting, geodesy, situational awareness and targeting-that Cartwright acknowledges is in commercial’s sweet spot.

When you reduce all the government requirements that drive cost on the MEPOT menu, you can realize a size reduction of up to 90% on the “quick to orbit side” and you open up launch and ride-share options because of the volume that makes the entire undertaking a reasonable proposition.

Eliminating-also-some 90% of the government processes-requirements process, oversight, testing regime, etc., etc., provides for a gain in acquisition agility to implement that latest iPhone photo application that uses seamless integration of multi-optics and LIDAR technology that most people have no clue about (capability first developed by the government,) and enhances reasonability from a cost standpoint that gets better as the volume and numbers increase as you go-trending toward “Walmart satellites.”

If you are paying between 100K to 1M for a satellite that will get a free ride upon completion, but even at the upper end of that range, say an average of 750K per flight article-and don’t trust my math-but you get about 1300 satellites per billion and if you lose as many as 20%-under the lessons learned category-that would still be over 1000 satellites. How much risk could you afford to bite off with such a program: the answer is all of it!

Also, one blinding, jamming, lasing, or “incidental” issue with our MEPOT line would currently be a huge, big deal-act of war class event, but tough to ferret out what happened at times in spite of countermeasures and ability to do forensics. How unambiguous would it be if any number of the commercial belt satellites was similarly attacked: that’s a lot of targets to take on and the attack would be unambiguous.

The knock has often been put forth (well, by me) that all these costs, weight, process, technology fostering commercial ideas just don’t answer the mail when I need to provide X,Y,Z target grade data and we simply can’t get there from here with the data being produced. But our MEPOT satellites are not generally tasked with supporting a 2000-line air tasking order-if planes are bombing stuff-or even extended range munitions-the COCOMs have intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms-UAVs-to pick up and cover slack on those targets. In the Army we had the bigger bomb theory to overcome circular error probability limitations.

From the MEPOT perspective we’re talking somewhat of the exquisite/exotic missions, Prompt Global Strike, Hypersonic designated targets.

But riddle me this, if you wanted to hide in plain sight for some reason, maybe because you picked a company to build your satellite who had never done one before and you were reduced to the embarrassing excuse “but they wrote a great proposal and were going to save us a billion dollars” lament, which scenario would you choose to do: hide on a tennis court during a tennis match, do stand-up comedy, or maybe hide in the crowd at the Rose Bowl?

See above M&S cut for contribution to solutions or targets over time by different assets-more is better, diverse phenomenology is even mo’ better, and the capability to track by combining various means is priceless!

30 December 2022

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