Like just about every other U.S. defense and intelligence organization these days, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is faced with an increasingly complex mission set in a constrained budget environment.

For most of its nearly five decades in existence, the agency, builder and operator of the nation’s classified spy satellites, was focused on a known and well-understood threat: the Soviet Union. Today, the environment has been complicated by the rise of other nations armed with increasingly sophisticated weaponry as well as unconventional enemies like the al-Qaida terrorist organization.

The NRO has adapted by reorganizing its internal infrastructure and re-emphasizing ground systems to better integrate its data products and thus deliver a bigger bang for its buck. The agency also has found ways to extend the life of many of its Cold War-era satellite systems and adapt them to the more diverse national security challenges the United States faces today.

One reason the NRO continues to lean so heavily on these older systems is the failure of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), a next-generation optical and radar imaging system designed by Boeing whose satellites were supposed to begin launching in 2005. The NRO canceled the optical portion of the program that year and tasked longtime incumbent Lockheed Martin to cobble together an interim capability based on legacy hardware. Boeing continues to work on the radar satellites.

Today the NRO is attempting to forge ahead on a new generation of optical imaging satellites, with plans to have Lockheed Martin build a system based in large part on proven designs. But the plan faces opposition from two key U.S. senators, who are pushing an alternative that NRO Director Bruce Carlson says is based on unproven technology and does not meet the requirements of the military and intelligence community.

Carlson, a retired U.S. Air Force general who took the reins of the NRO in June, spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Turner Brinton.


What is the status of Boeing’s work on the FIA radar satellites, and what are your plans for a follow-on system?

The radar program has had considerable trouble and been over cost in the past. It has been rebaselined, and Boeing is performing remarkably well today. We have a couple of engineering hurdles to get over, and we’re looking for a successful launch pretty much on schedule. We have several of those on the drawing board.

Regarding a follow-on to that system, that is something Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and I are working very hard to decide. There have been dozens of studies on this subject. We think we have developed a path forward where we will do a demonstration of technology and then look at current programs before making a decision on a follow-on program, probably within the next 24 months.


Will commercial radar systems be a part of the solution?

There will be a whole host of things. We will demonstrate some technologies, and there will be a lot of different things in there, yes.


To what extent is the NRO’s effort to keep its Cold War-era systems operating driven by the collapse of FIA and the prospect of a gap in U.S. optical imaging capabilities?

Let’s just postulate that FIA was a complete success. If I were to speculate, I would say I think we would still be doing 80 percent to 90 percent of what we’re doing today. I really do, because we get great information from our overhead geospatial system. We get great information from our overhead signals intelligence collectors. But the real power is the integration of those capabilities. That’s where you take generalized data and make it precision intelligence. So I think we would probably still be doing a lot of what we’re doing today.


What are some of the other factors driving this effort?

First, let’s go back to the history in the 1960s and 1970s. We launched systems in those days and brought them back, even though they were fully operationally capable, simply because we had another one ready to go. We would never do that today because one, we can’t afford it, and two, we have the capability to operate more than a couple of systems at a time. The paradigm has changed; we just don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world where there is just an insatiable appetite for intelligence information. Our imaging systems are consistently, daily, oversubscribed. We’re always looking to gather more data.


How will the Next-Generation Optical satellites be different than the previous generation of Lockheed Martin-built optical satellites?

They will be more modular, and we’ll use existing states of technology and existing states of manufacturing. We will also decrease their size and complexity. We’re working very hard to make the upfront investments a little higher for the non-recurring engineering costs so that we can get a satellite that’s much more producible in a shorter amount of time, because time is money. We’ve gone out into the marketplace to see where we can adopt some commercial practices and components, such as satellite buses and processors. So we have done that kind of work to bring the technology readiness levels up to where we think they are very executable now, but we have a few items to go.

We are going to execute Next-Generation Optical probably for less money than we’ve budgeted for it, and we’re going to put it out at least on time. My view is, if you’re early you’re on time, if you’re on time you’re late and if you’re late you’re out of work. So that’s the philosophy around here.


The other part of the U.S. satellite imagery plan is to fully integrate commercial data into the national distribution architecture. How will NRO be a part of this process?

We work hand in glove with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on this, and we’re a great fan of putting commercial imagery into the system. Our national systems are oversubscribed every day, and some of our military and intelligence community’s needs don’t demand the kind of precision that we can put on an image. Our goal and the work we’re doing inside our ground systems is to fully integrate commercial imagery with our systems so that we can quickly disseminate imagery whenever it’s needed. If it has to be distributed through our network, we’re delighted to do that.


Are the NRO’s organizational changes complete, and what effect have the changes had so far?

You’re never where you need to be, and change is a constant. For most of the NRO’s existence, it was a very advanced organization in a very static environment. Today we live in an incredibly different environment, and we simply can’t think that any organization we have is going to be the precisely correct one for tomorrow. So before I came here, the powers that be began a transformation of the organization to make it much more horizontally integrated. It was the right thing to do. But after you’ve done it one way for so many years, change is difficult, no matter what organization you have. Especially in one that has done things very well for a long time. So there’s some institutional hesitancy to make change, and it’s to be expected.

The keys to meeting the challenges of a changing world are having an integrated architecture and making use of technology that’s available today. And you’ll begin to see that in the ground architecture that we’ve been developing in this organization. We need to stress commonality in many of our systems, where in the past we developed them, for good reasons, in very stovepiped ways with very stovepiped distribution systems.


Are you starting to see results of the transformation?

Yes. All of them I can’t talk about, but I can tell you that we have products being distributed to users from systems that are still in engineering check out. That’s a big change to the way we used to do business.


How do you balance the integration of your architecture with the need to build new generations of satellites in a constrained budgetary environment?

We are in a difficult budgetary spot along with everybody else in the intelligence community. We simply have to prioritize our needs along with our budget. We just say “these are the most important” and “these are the least important,” and we end up cutting some things. We went through this last budget drill for 2011, and we ended up cutting a bunch of things. And that was very painful. We went all the way to the Director of National Intelligence’s executive committee and briefed it there, and there was not unanimous agreement. We eliminated some things off of some of our systems. It’s probably the most difficult and complex thing we do, deciding what gets done and what doesn’t.


Why did you take this job?

I was asked. I’ve had very little background in this business, but I was excited to come and lead this organization. It’s a remarkable outfit with incredibly innovative people. It’s the most motivated work force I’ve ever seen, and I’ve led some pretty big organizations with civilians and military in them. The spirit of innovation and the pursuit of high technology is still alive in the NRO. We are doing things today that nobody else in the world can do, and we’re demonstrating to our users that we can perform at the outer edge of the envelope.


Turner Brinton contributed to this report.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...