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Pentagon making huge changes to secret space programs, tech

House and Senate appropriators have added into their two fiscal 2024 Defense spending bills a combined $25.7 billion the Pentagon did not formally seek for more than 1,200 research and procurement projects, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of a watchdog group’s previously undisclosed database. (Dreamstime/TNS)
January 26, 2024

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks recently signed off on a classified memo that changed the Department of Defense (DOD) policy on assigning security classifications to projects in military space programs. 

According to ExecutiveGov, John F. Plumb, Assistant Secretary for Space Policy, said the change was necessary to allow information sharing between branches of the armed forces and allies on advancements in space technology. Previous rules and regulations regarding the release of information were outdated, hindering effective communication. 

“What the classification memo does, generally, is it overwrites — it really completely rewrites — a legacy document that had its roots 20 years ago, and it’s just no longer applicable to the current environment that involves national security space,” Plumb said.

“So, anything we can bring from a SAP level to a Top Secret level, for example, brings massive value to the warfighter, massive value to the department, and frankly, my hope is over time [it] will also allow us to share more information with allies and partners that they might not currently be able to share,” he added.

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Special Access Programs (SAP) designate certain military programs with the highest level of information protection in the interest of national security. A designation of SAP on any given program is generally applied at the discretion of the department and raises the security level above Top Secret on a ‘need to know’ basis. Under these stringent restrictions, inter and intra-agency collaboration may be hindered due to the inability to share information. 

During a briefing held on January 17, Plumb stressed the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships with allies as the issue of space security continues to grow in importance. 

Earlier in December, the United States participated in an annual meeting of the Combined Space Initiative Principals Board (CSpO) held in Berlin. Italy, Japan, and Berlin were welcomed as new attendees, joining representatives from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The initiative was established in 2014 with the stated mission to reduce conflict and optimize resources while sustaining cooperation, coordination, and freedom in space. 

The new rules don’t automatically declassify all information on U.S. space programs and technology. Instead, authorization is given to each service to apply security-level designators to projects. According to Breaking Defense, Plumb made it clear that broad declassification was not his priority. 

“Inside the beltway, people always ask me about how can I make things unclassified? And that is not actually a thing I’m all that concerned about. I’m concerned about reducing the classification of things where they are over-classified to the point that it hampers our ability to get work done or hamper the ability of the warfighter to do their mission,” he said.