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U.S. falling behind in new space race, says CIA's former head of science and tech

Space Force gets support from Pentagon

The U.S. may have lost most of its competitive advantage in the development of its capabilities in space, compared to Russia and China – and it may struggle to catch up to competitors, according to Glenn Gaffney, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Science and Technology Directorate.

"I think one of the big challenges that we have today is a number of our capabilities in the space arena have atrophied over the years," said Gaffney, a 30-year veteran of the agency who now serves as Executive Vice President of the not-for-profit, strategic intelligence investment group, In-Q-Tel.

  • Transcript: Glenn Gaffney talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

"China and Russia have continued to build and to invest in their capabilities in this area as well as other areas," he said. "And in many ways, the U.S. has some catch-up to do."

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In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Gaffney said the overall network of U.S. capabilities in space – including its communications and observations systems and other infrastructure vital to the country's intelligence community – "need to be paid attention to."

Gaffney said a decades-long reduction in spending – starting with a natural drawback after the fall of the Berlin Wall – was a root cause of the nation's existing shortcomings. "Choices had to be made," he said. "And a number of those choices came at reducing our level of spending on the space program," including its intelligence components, which Gaffney said had offered a unique and essential means of seeing over the Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War.

"Many of us cautioned at the time that while we slowed down and we pulled back, adversaries wouldn't," Gaffney said, "and it would take on the order of 20 years to gain back some of the things that we were going to give up."

Gaffney told Morell the Trump administration's recent efforts to create workable proposals for a sixth, separate, civilian-directed military "Space Force" branch was an encouraging, if still incipient, development.

"I don't know enough about…the way they're thinking about the command to comment effectively on it," Gaffney said. "What I do see it as is a recognition of the need for specific and deliberate focus to pay attention and build capability in that area."

Vice President Mike Pence laid out the administration's plan for the new military department in August. The proposal has met with sizable opposition from the Pentagon and little more than tepid enthusiasm from Congress, which would have to approve any final reorganization and associated spending within the Defense Department.

Beyond space, Gaffney said China has also opened up a lead in areas like biotech, machine learning and artificial intelligence. "What they seem to have done is put together a multi-year strategy to take our thought leadership and operationalize it in their context," Gaffney said. "They're amassing tremendous amounts of data using their own citizens to actually build their models in machine learning and deep learning."

"There are some deep questions that need to be addressed in that area that the U.S. needs to grapple with," he continued. "And we're going to need to explain it to the American public" in order to ensure evolving technologies maintain high levels of security while still adhering to a traditional U.S. value system.

"Huge race," he stressed.

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Glenn Gaffney, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here