Military Space Quarterly | NRO Director Looks To Boost Resiliency, Remove Stovepipes

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TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office plans to evolve its portfolio of satellites and sensors in space to increase affordability, bolster resiliency and allow for greater integration of other intelligence community assets, the agency’s director said in a speech here April 16.

In a rare public speech, Betty Sapp outlined the intelligence community’s future needs for space, one that places a heavy value on resiliency, a pillar of the Air Force’s path forward in space.

The NRO is the Chantilly, Va.-based federal agency responsible for the design, construction and operation of the country’s intelligence-gathering satellites.

The NRO’s future satellite architecture will be “more resilient and more affordable but better able to pull together an integrated whole,” Sapp said in a keynote speech at the Geoint conference here.

Currently, satellite systems operate as separate entities, independent of the NRO portfolio, she said.

“Each was unique. Each was complex and each one did a great job at what it particularly did,” she said. “That’s our past. It cannot be our future.”

Sapp said in the near future the intelligence community will field satellites “that are not [geospatial intelligence] collectors or [signals intelligence] collectors but platforms of various regimes in space that can carry appropriate sensors or sets of sensors.”

In addition, ground systems should not be tethered to a single satellite or system, she said, but instead serve the entire architecture. A simplified and standardized network of ground stations would provide the intelligence community access to more data in a more timely fashion, “again, for that resiliency concern,” she said.

The NRO plans to spend “a lot less” money on ground systems in the future by relying more on commercial hardware and developing common systems for similar satellites, Sapp said.

Sapp also shed some light on an NRO activity dubbed the High Altitude Lidar Operation Experiment (HALOE), which she had referenced briefly in testimony before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee April 8.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging, is a remote-sensing technology that measures distances by analyzing the reflected light from a laser beam.

“Some of our best capabilities don’t go initially to space but get tried out first on airborne platforms and they do real missions while providing us data and experience,” Sapp said. “An example of that is HALOE.”

HALOE was flown 65 times aboard an aircraft in Afghanistan between September and December 2013 and supported 3-D, high-resolution mapping of geographically restricted areas, she said. The mission collected 72,000 square kilometers of wide-area mapping data at resolutions of 20-40 centimeters, she said.

“HALOE gave intel analysts potential insurgent routes and operational planners a precise terrain data to develop force protection,” Sapp said.

Loretta DeSio, an NRO spokeswoman, said in an April 10 email the agency is no longer involved with HALOE, which is now managed by the Army Geospatial Center.

Meanwhile, Sapp reiterated a point often emphasized by her predecessor about the importance of a robust research and development program, calling the activity a must-have if the NRO is to stay viable among ever-changing threats. The NRO spends about 9 percent of its annual budget on research and development, according to a slide Sapp presented. The NRO’s budget is classified, but experts say it is in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

Sapp also said an experimental microsatellite known as the Rapid Pathfinder, built by Millennium Space Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and launched in 2011, cost less than $20 million, a previously undisclosed figure. She described the satellite, built in less than two years, as “very, very successful on orbit.”