Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Wrong Man for the Job

The Obama Administration appears poised to fill a critical vacancy on its national security team. Various defense sources indicate that retired Air Force General Bruce Carlson will be the next Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the semi-secret organization that designs and operates the nation's spy satellites.

While an official announcement has not been made, Carlson--who retired from active duty in January--would replace Scott Large, who resigned from the agency on 18 April. Large announced his departure one day after President Obama approved plans for a new generation of electro-optical imagery satellites, which will be overseen by the NRO.

By most accounts, Large's sudden retirement was largely due to circumstances beyond his control. The former NRO director was "tarred" with the failure of Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), a proposed network of spy satellites that was cancelled due to its inordinate complexity and massive cost overruns.

While Large was not entirely responsible for the FIA debacle, he received much of the blame from senior defense leaders. Large was also faulted for not completing a planned reorganization of the NRO. Officials told DoD Buzz in April that the reorganization actually devolved into a "massive dis-organization," with Mr. Large losing control of some functions within his agency. As the chaos continued, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided it was time for a change.

Supposedly, General Carlson has all the qualities Mr. Large lacked; as a retired four-star (who ran 8th Air Force and Air Force Material Command, among other organizations), Carlson is someone who knows how to take charge and lead. He also has "street cred" with the warfighter community and experience in acquisitions makes him "uniquely qualified" to lead NRO.

But Carlson's record at Material Command suggests he might be the wrong man for the job. When he took charge of the organization in 2005, General Carlson had two major objectives: reign in the bloated civilian bureaucracy that dominates AFMC, and get control of escalating costs associated with the command's acquisition and maintenance depot functions.

By most accounts, General Carlson failed on both counts. Development costs for AFMC-administered weapons programs (including the F-22 and F-35) continued to escalate on his watch. The command's sprawling logistics centers remained middling performers and even gave Carlson a public black eye.

In the spring of 2008, it was revealed that personnel at the Ogden Air Logistics Center in Utah inadvertently shipped nuclear components to Taiwan. More than a half-dozen senior officers in the AFMC chain received non-judicial punishment for their roles in the mistake.

But for many observers, the low point of Carlson's tenure came with a strange request he forwarded to the Air Force Chief of Staff. At the request of AFMC's senior civilians, Carlson asked the Air Force for a waiver on Air Force safety regulations, which mandate the use of a hands-free device with a cell phone while driving.

Apparently, the command's senior civilian mafia believed they should be exempt from safety guidelines established for the entire service. Rather than telling them to get in line with the rest of the USAF, Carlson dutifully submitted the waiver request, which was quickly rejected by Air Force leadership. To many, the "hands-free" waiver request was proof positive that the civilians--and not General Carlson--were running the show at AFMC.

At NRO, Carlson will inherit an organization with many of the same problems. While the reconnaissance office is a fraction of AFMC's size, it is also dominated by entrenched layers of senior civilians, who have become adept at building spy satellites that are technical marvels, but are usually delivered years behind schedule and billions over budget.

It's also worth noting that General Carlson doesn't have much of a space or intel background, other important qualifications for an NRO Director. While he is almost universally described as a "classy guy," and an "experienced leader," many space and intel experts expressed surprise when Carlson emerged as a leader for the NRO post.

Clearly, General Carlson faces an uphill battle in righting the ship at NRO. Assuming he's actually picked to run the agency, Carlson will find himself in the middle of a crucial battle over the future of our spy satellite program. Many within NRO still favor "Cadillac" systems, despite their cost and lengthy development cycles. Meanwhile, other elements within DoD prefer less complex systems that can be deployed more quickly, and in greater numbers.

DoD Buzz also reports that the Obama Administration has had a "hard time" finding someone to lead NRO. In other words, many of the intel and space pros who would be logical choices to run the agency want no part of the bureaucratic food fight. That would suggest that Mr. Obama and his SecDef were looking through second-tier candidates when they decided on General Carlson. It's not often that a retired four-star is thought of in those terms, but clearly the administration could find someone more qualified to lead NRO at this critical juncture in the organization's history.

Having said all that, we wish General Carlson luck in his new assignment (assuming, of course, that he's the nominee). He'll need all of his managerial skill--and a measure of luck--in getting NRO back on track.

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