Leaked Documents Offer Snapshot of NRO Activity

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is trying to wean itself from reliance on a satellite communications system run by NASA, according to excerpts of classified budget documents published Aug. 29 by the Washington Post.

According to the documents, the NRO, which buys and operates the nation’s spy satellites, is investing in a “special communications capability” that will reduce its reliance on NASA’S Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system. The geostationary-orbiting TDRS system’s nominal purpose is to allow NASA to communicate at all times with its low-orbiting spacecraft, including the international space station, but officials with the civil space agency have acknowledged that the Department of Defense is the primary user of the system and provides most of the funding.

The documents, which outline the U.S. intelligence community’s classified $52.6 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013, were leaked to the Washington Post by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published online in redacted form. They provide an unprecedented glimpse of spending in the 16 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community.

The NRO, with a 2013 budget request of $10.3 billion, is among the top five U.S. intelligence agencies in terms of spending, the documents show. The agency’s budget has grown 12 percent since 2004, a far slower pace than the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the documents show.

There were no details of the new communications capability referred to in the redacted budget documents. The NRO has long operated its own fleet of NRO Relay communications satellites to move reams of data collected by its spy satellites, but the documents suggest that this system has insufficient capacity. The NRO asked Congress for $815 million for communications satellites in 2013, according to the budget documents.

Another notable item in the NRO’s request is launch activity, for which the agency requested $1.3 billion in 2013, according to the documents. NRO payloads, like virtually all operational U.S. national security satellites, are launched by United Launch Alliance under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

The unclassified Air Force budget for the EELV program in 2013 is just under $1.5 billion. That presumably means that if Congress approved the NRO’s full request for launch activities in 2013, total EELV program funding for the year approached $2.8 billion.

United Launch Alliance of Denver has launched one NRO payload during the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2012. The company has conducted seven launches for the Air Force, with at least one more planned through September.

The leaked documents, which provide no details of prior-year funding for various activities, break down the NRO’s 2013 as follows:

  • $1.8 billion for geospatial intelligence (electro-optical).
  • $278.3 million for geospatial intelligence (radar).
  • $482 million for sensitive technical collection.
  • $927.5 million for signals intelligence (high orbit).
  • $446.4 million for signals intelligence (low orbit).
  • $1.5 billion for geospatial intelligence/spatial intelligence.
  • $1.0 billion for ground stations.

The budget documents suggest plans to discontinue lower-priority missions by “de-orbiting the Baseline Onyx satellite” and transferring funding for legacy satellites to the Defense Department’s Military Intelligence Program. Onyx is a radar imaging satellite, according to Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow with the National Security Archive at George Washington University here.

Under the heading of “long-term investments,” the documents suggest delaying “performance enhancements” for a group of satellites known as TOPAZ until a second generation of satellites is available. Topaz is thought to be a successor to Onyx, Richelson said.

Reached via email Aug. 30, Loretta DeSio, a spokeswoman for the NRO, said she was unable to comment by press time.