Op-ed | Security clearance reforms needed to accelerate space innovation

Space

The process by which clearances are acquired, granted and maintained remains slow and byzantine

The U.S. government’s restrictive security clearance process is hindering its ability to access cutting-edge space technology and protect sensitive information from foreign espionage.

The Space Force is embarking on an aggressive effort to incorporate commercial technology from new entrants into its current and future architectures. High-profile efforts like the Space Enterprise Consortium, SpaceWERX and others are all designed to help bring nontraditional space companies into the fold by overcoming the Defense Department’s acquisition hurdles and barriers to entry. 

This effort is laudable and has yielded small-dollar successes. Yet, while the service is working to bring down contractual barriers, security clearances remain a key obstacle.

Requirements to possess security clearances to access classified contractual information is not the question, as this data must absolutely be protected. Rather, the process by which clearances are acquired, granted and maintained remains slow and byzantine, holding back innovation and integration. 

Reforming this effort will yield two complementary results: enhancing the overall security posture of the domestic commercial space industry and increasing the competitive industrial base for national security space.  

The counterintelligence threat from China is real and growing. Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, was not exaggerating in 2018 when he said that China’s theft of intellectual property is the “greatest transfer of wealth in history,” costing the United States some $400 billion annually.

The Chinese Communist Party and its various arms are embarked on an aggressive effort to both legally and illegally obtain critical technologies to leap ahead in innovation and corner strategic technologies and supply chains. There is no industry that has been left untouched by this campaign: from farming to information technology, automotive parts to medical devices. 

In October, the acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC)  Michael Orlando outlined five key priority areas for his organization including semiconductors, biotechnology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems. While prioritization makes sense (if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority), omitting commercial space from this list is an error. 

China’s efforts in space are accelerating and achieving marked success. Regardless of whether Beijing’s recent hypersonic test was a “Sputnik moment” (it wasn’t), it speaks to the acceleration of the country’s capabilities in space. Gen. John Hyten, the outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said that “calling China a pacing threat is a useful term because the pace at which China is moving is stunning … The pace they’re moving and the trajectory they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it.”

China launched a second crewed mission to build a space station in October of this year, this at a time when the United States is questioning the future of the International Space Station, while Blue Origin and Sierra Space are considering building their own commercial Orbital Reef. This follows China’s impressive deployment of a relay satellite at the L2 point in space, and the landing and operation of a rover on the far-side of the moon. 

The NCSC would do well to bring in emerging American commercial space companies into the fold by briefing them on the threats they face, as well as how they can protect themselves. Failing to do so will only provide Beijing with an increased attack surface to steal or acquire potentially game-changing space technologies. This means granting and holding clearances when companies do not yet have a government contract. 

Right now, in order to get a facility clearance, a lengthy-process in and of itself, a company has to have a government contract with the security requirements included as a “flowdown.” However, access to government threat postures and requirements is only open to companies that already possess clearances, creating a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Providing an early pathway for commercial space companies and individuals to be cleared to receive sensitive threat briefings and initiate the requisite security infrastructure would only strengthen the security posture of this critical industry. 

At the same time, creating that pathway for companies in the commercial space industry would help the Space Force achieve its goal of bringing new vendors and access substantial private investment. Here again that chicken-and-egg problem reappears: even to view some contracts and engage with government customers, a company must be cleared or partner with a cleared company. Smartly granting clearances or adjusting the requirements to view and bid on contracts will only open the aperture of potential Space Force partners and vendors. This will bring in new and novel capabilities which are almost certainly sitting on the metaphorical sidelines and literal drawing boards of companies across the United States. 

Reforming the clearance process would also go some way to drawing in smart talent into the commercial sector and getting the best minds attacking the hardest challenges. Right now, it could take upwards of two years for a clearance to be processed. In an era where competing for talent is often a game of inches, any unreasonable delay could see talent going elsewhere. This isn’t an issue just for the private sector, but for the government itself. How many smart, talented, patriotic people are out there wanting to work for the government, but the process to gain a clearance is too long and too convoluted, so they seek other opportunities? 

A restrictive security clearance process not only increases the risk of Chinese espionage, but it artificially limits the innovation of America’s national security space enterprise. If the government puts constraints on who can see and bid on contracts, it limits available solutions and future capabilities. 

Overhauling and streamlining this process will increase the security of the commercial space industry and bring in new entrants to speed access to game-changing capabilities and technology: a win-win here on Earth and in orbit. 

Joshua C. Huminski @joshuachuminski is director of the National Security Space Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a visiting fellow at the George Mason University National Security Institute.

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