Imagine this scenario: the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) sits before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) to deliver a report on advanced aerial threats.
The moment has been closely anticipated by a public fascinated by the mystery surrounding unexplained sightings. A smaller community of those interested in defense policy watch closely, too. They are mostly interested in the real-world implications for counter-unmanned aircraft systems (CUAS) policy. In plain English: they are worried about the mounting threat of small, increasingly sophisticated drones.
The DNI falters, providing less than satisfying answers. He or she has had six months to prepare the report while simultaneously dealing with COVID-19, the Russian bounty scandal, and any number of other pressing intelligence issues that rarely receive public consideration. All this, following a bitter election with unprecedented focus on the prospect of foreign intelligence meddling in domestic politics.
There has barely been time to declassify documents to meet the Senate’s request for an unclassified report. A circus ringmaster without a whip, the DNI has struggled to bring 17 headstrong agencies to heel. Predictably, it has had only partial success.
Pressed for answers, the DNI, perhaps very new in their position, must explain the failure. They must fault someone.
Who will it be?
Imagine you are the CEO of a large corporation. You want to enact a policy, but you know that some of your managers at the ground level do not want to carry it out because it threatens their jobs.
You oversee a vast bureaucracy; you barely know many of these managers. It would take you months, maybe years, to ferret out the problematic elements.
How can you find the troublemakers and those with feet of clay?
One way to do it is to give your subordinate an impossible task. You tell them to make the change in six months, knowing full well that it cannot be done.
If you’re lucky, your subordinate might make token progress towards the policy change you want. But the real value of your request is the pressure — immense pressure — of a very short deadline. Such deadlines concentrate the mind; they locate exactly who is moving slowly. Your subordinate, interested in protecting their own job, will have every incentive to name the problematic parties.
In other words, sometimes to fix something you have to break it.
Consider why the SSCI gave the DNI only 180 days to produce a largely unclassified report on such complex matters.
The 9/11 Commission took nearly two years to produce. The assessment of pre-war intelligence on Iraq took a year in the first phase, and stretched to nearly four overall. The principal policy architect of the SSCI report, Christopher Mellon, suggested a timeline of 18 months — three times longer than the period specified by the committee.
Why did senior policymakers impose such an urgent deadline — drastically faster than what was recommended?
One answer might be because they know it won’t really be carried out. Why would it be? Evidently, the issue has been mishandled for years. The Senate only learned of it after the TTSA media campaign in 2017 released footage of bizarre objects flying in protected airspace.
Senators do not love to learn of national security problems from the New York Times.
Like the CEO facing obstinate low-level managers, they need to plumb the labyrinth to find precisely where the problem is. So, perhaps they gave the DNI an impossible job. When the day of reckoning comes, the least cooperative party will be put in the spotlight. A potentially new DNI, eager to protect their already beleaguered office, has every incentive to shift the blame.
So, return to the image of the DNI, sweating slightly in an uncomfortable chair in a hearing room.
Who will they blame? Who has blocked a plainspoken request by the United States Senate?
The culprit will likely not be the Navy. The Navy task force described in the Report appears to be the head of the spear. It is explicitly praised and supported the SSCI.
The answer is much more likely to be the Air Force.
The silence of the Air Force has been deafening. It also has the potential to become damning.
We are entering a century that will see stranger, wilder skies — increasingly full of drones of mounting sophistication and autonomy. The Air Force is fundamentally tasked with protecting us from such threats. Over the years, it has shrunk in terms of personnel and even aircraft. Still, it remains an important player in research and development. It boasts one of the highest fractions of black budget programs of any branch.
But if the Air Force delays or dodges on this question, what use are these impressive programs? What use is its budget, really? Will the F-35 protect us from deniable air space incursions from our rivals? Or from non-state actors?
Is the Air Force prepared to cede its responsibility to the Navy? Is that the message the Senate should hear at a time when defense budgets are expected to contract?
Balking on this question risks strategic miscalculation. This would not be the first time the Air Force has lost the initiative to the Navy. In the past, it has been challenged in the delivery of nuclear weapons. Why rely on long range bombers and missiles when the Navy can deliver weapons with mobile carriers, or stealthy submarines?
Today, as we encounter strange new technologies, we are confronting commensurately strange intelligence problems. And once again, the more agile Navy has established a head start by proving itself the superior provider of intelligence.
It was distinctly not the Air Force that received the praise of the Senate. It received only icy silence with regard to a problem within its core mission.
It does not need to be this way.
The Air Force will soon have a new Chief of Staff in General Charles Q. Brown Jr. There is an opportunity for a restart. Here is what the Air Force could do:
1. Recognize the situation for what it is. For whatever reason, the Air Force has lost the initiative. When the DNI sits before the Senate, it will not help the Air Force if it receives the brunt of the blame for an intelligence failure. Especially in an area that is virtually guaranteed to be critical in the near future: protection of our skies against emerging advanced aerial threats.
2. Bring its massive technological sophistication to bear on solving this problem. This is a tremendous opportunity to showcase the scientific and engineering excellence of the Air Force. Share your data and take the lead with your unique capabilities.
3. Do not delegate this to the middle strata of the hierarchy. This will only encourage delay and red tape. It will virtually guarantee a bad day in the Senate hearing room. Take ownership of this problem at a high level — which is distinctly the Air Force’s problem to own in the first place.
4. Get over the stigma. Yes, the UAP/UFO issue has had a carnival atmosphere. However, we are entering a new era of great power competition. The Air Force well knows that the frontier is autonomous swarms and hypersonic drones. It knows because it is actively building that future. Be less afraid of looking silly. Take on the challenge that is already clearly in sight.
In short, the Air Force has a rare opportunity to win something. In all likelihood, it already has impressive programs both in terms of drones and CUAS capabilities. Hiding them or stonewalling for fear of stigma would be a mistake.
If the Air Force does not take up the challenge, it likely consigns itself to taking the blame. The prize of that blame may be a back seat when it comes time to negotiate the budget.
It is not only the esteem of the Senate that is at risk, but the public and potential recruits. That promising 18 year old with an interest in technology may well decide that the Navy is a better place to apply their talents than the Air Force.