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Moving to A Higher Orbit

October 2001
By Henry S. Kenyon

The nation’s premier surveillance satellite operator is ready for the future with a new business approach and tools.

Few things on Earth go unnoticed by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. So, when the landscape of national security changed in the 1990s, it saw the beginning of the end for a long-established corporate culture. The once highly secretive organization has since restructured itself by dramatically increasing its research and development efforts and aggressively enlisting services from the commercial sector. These changes reflect a general trend toward consolidating space-based observation assets within the intelligence community. 

A decade after the end of the Cold War, the United States is redefining its strategic reconnaissance policies and infrastructure. Part of this initiative involves the modernization and streamlining of government space efforts. While multiple military services and government agencies once operated largely separate intelligence-gathering systems, the new emphasis is on combining them into a single entity.

The mission of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is to design, build and operate the nation’s reconnaissance satellites. For 40 years, the Chantilly, Virginia-based organization has been at the forefront of new space-based technologies. However, the strategic environment has changed considerably since the Cold War era. The former Soviet Union was a predictable adversary, and the organization developed many years of experience by focusing most of its attention on that opponent, NRO Director Keith Hall explains.

Today, the agency’s job is more difficult because it must monitor multiple global hot spots. Incidents often occur without warning. Hall describes these as “pop-up targets,” requiring the United States to act quickly and with limited information about the situation. This change in the intelligence-gathering environment has significantly affected how the NRO operates as well as what types of satellite systems it designs and procures, he says.

The organization’s relative openness to public scrutiny is another major shift. No longer a classified agency, the NRO’s responsibilities are now more in line with other government bodies, a modification that has both positive and negative effects, Hall says. The organization can now communicate more easily with its customers. “Before, you more or less had to have a high clearance to know we existed,” he notes. But openness also means that when an incident occurs or a mistake is made, the agency bears the blame like any other government organization. Because it is an intelligence agency, however, the NRO often cannot speak for itself or provide details about an incident. “We can’t really set the record straight because most of the things we do remain classified. If there’s a [news] story out there that says there’s been a major screw-up—it’s usually not as bad as people say, but we can’t correct the facts,” Hall explains.

The current NRO is a completely different organization from its Cold War incarnation, he relates. Beginning in 1993, it underwent a major reorganization to modernize its capabilities and move toward an operational mode to fit the new national security environment. Previously, the agency’s architecture was built around the organizations that contributed to the nation’s intelligence-gathering mission: the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Each entity operated separately and had attached NRO personnel who managed the reconnaissance process and brokered with the other organizations. The restructuring process merged these separate functions to provide unified delivery of imagery, signals intelligence, research and development, and communications.

Hall notes that this rearrangement represents a more rational approach to the challenges a satellite and ground infrastructure pose. While NRO program offices used to compete with each other for contracts during the Cold War, industry contractors now vie for contracts, making the procurement effort more efficient. Hall believes that the organization has maintained its unique core strengths—streamlined management and cradle-to-grave management of a space system from design to operation to end-of-life—but it now relies heavily on industry to achieve this mission. He adds that 95 percent of the NRO’s budget is put into contracts, providing the organization with a great degree of agility.

The newly restructured NRO faces a changing landscape for national security space operations. Hall predicts that the black-and-white space communities will eventually merge into a unified national space entity. While he does not know how long this will take, he notes that the path to achieve this goal has already been laid out in a report by the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization—also known as the space commission (SIGNAL, April, page 57). The document emphasizes that the CIA, the intelligence community, the military and other defense elements with space-based operations must closely cooperate to fashion an efficient system. “The nation can afford one good set of space capabilities. It can’t afford one for the military and one for the intelligence community,” he says.

Some barriers between space-based intelligence organizations must be removed to enhance cooperation, Hall contends. Currently, if agencies want to work together, they must sign a memorandum of agreement to cement the partnership. While these bureaucratic steps are necessary today, greater agility is needed, he says. “I think the various entities in the national security space community have to be on a path toward coming together. Right now, there are multiple players in this area on the national security front.” One of the space commission’s recommendations was to streamline intelligence assets, but reaching that goal will require a transition period, he adds.

During its reorganization, the NRO faced a dilemma: how to aggressively modernize its systems while maintaining its current orbital assets. Compounding this conundrum was a declining budget. To work around this obstacle and meet its goals within existing fiscal limitations, the agency took a multifaceted approach that emphasized new technologies that reduce operational costs and increase intelligence-gathering capabilities.

A key part of the NRO’s overall restructuring program and its current satellite system efforts is to sizably increase its research and development budget. Hall notes that when they began the modernization, agency planners realized that their ability to do so was based on research and development activities that had been robust in the 1980s. Those programs provided the NRO with the flexibility to pursue its current improvement initiatives. However, in the early 1990s, the organization’s research and development expenditures were dangerously low due to budget downsizing—too low to keep future U.S. administrations one step ahead of the nation’s adversaries, he maintains.

NRO planners made a conscious decision to emphasize research and development in spite of a declining budget. “We thought that in the initial phases of the draw down, we had eaten too much of our seed corn by shutting down much of our research and development [R&D] budget. So we made a commitment to get our R&D budget up to 10 percent of our total budget,” Hall explains. At the time this decision was made, the NRO’s expenditures for this line item were at 3.8 percent. Within one fiscal year, this grew to 7 percent. While not yet at 10 percent, he notes that annual R&D now averages between 8 and 9 percent.

This strategy has been in place for the past five years, and Hall claims that it is generating a number of new technological capabilities currently being examined in the Quadrennial Defense Review process and a presidentially directed study of intelligence capabilities headed by CIA Director George J. Tenet.

One of the fruits of this increased research effort has been the development of smaller, more capable reconnaissance satellites. While initial expenses were incurred to design entirely new spacecraft, when completed, the smaller satellites were less expensive than larger ones. “It’s not quite true to say that the cost of a satellite is directly proportional to its weight and size, but it’s pretty darn close,” Hall observes. Advances in technology helped the NRO in this redesign process, allowing the organization to work better with smaller, less costly packages, he says.

The NRO is working with the Air Force to develop a smaller launch vehicle. The evolved expendable launch vehicle program will provide a more responsive capability for space operations. Hall notes that it currently takes up to four months to mount a launch campaign with a payload already at the launch base. The goal is to do this in no more than 30 days, which translates into reduced operational costs, he says.

The program also has commercial applications. “Rather than a government-only means of accessing space, we’ll be able to leverage off a commercial access to space with government and commercial satellites launching on the same fleet of vehicles,” he explains. The spacecraft are being built separately by Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company to provide a dual-launch system. If one craft has difficulty, another can be quickly activated for use, he says.

A certain degree of risk was involved in transitioning from the old systems to the new because the NRO stopped procuring older satellite types when it began designing its new generation of spacecraft. Hall likens this approach to swinging through the branches of a tree. “We’ve let go of one branch, and we’re on the way to grab a new one. I think we’re going to make it just fine, but that means our new systems have to work. They’ve got to work the first time, and they’ve got to launch successfully.” The organization is in the process of launching its post-Cold War architectures, and its on-orbit fleet is operating well, he adds.

Smaller, more easily launched reconnaissance satellites also provide NRO clients, the military and the intelligence community with greater information-gathering capabilities and a quicker on-station response time to meet their growing needs. For example, Hall describes a recent program the NRO conducted in cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force called Discoverer II. The concept was to reduce satellite cost and size so that it would be possible to deploy a fleet of 18 to 24 radar satellites to provide nearly continuous real-time coverage of a battlespace. Hall stresses that this was a research and development program to test the technical feasibility of the systems and that it is still not cost-effective to rapidly deploy spacecraft in those numbers. However, it is an indication of where the agency’s capabilities are heading to meet the increasing demand for accurate, real-time data, he relates.

Meeting its customers’ needs is an important and continuing goal for the NRO, but technological development should not be pursued for its own sake, Hall cautions. Because of the costs involved, programs should pursue only goals that are absolutely essential and broadly agreed upon among the agency’s partners. “I think if you keep those ingredients in the forefront as we move toward this future national security space environment, the nation will be served well,” he says.

Additional information on the National Reconnaissance Office is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.nro.gov.