WASHINGTON — A new charter that would give the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) full budget authority for its own programs is expected to be approved in the coming weeks by the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence, the NRO’s top official said Sept. 13.
The NRO, which builds and operates the nation’s classified spy satellites, has struggled over the last decade or so with a shrinking work force and a number of setbacks or failures on high-profile programs. To regain the reputation it once had, the office is expanding its staff and changing everything from how it plans and executes programs to how it buys rockets, NRO Director Bruce Carlson said at the annual Air Force Association conference here.
“If this organization is going to be credible, we’ve got to launch rockets on time and get payloads into orbit when we say they’re going to be there, and they’ve got to do what we told people they were going to do,” Carlson said.
The NRO currently can decide when most of its programs are ready to move from the research and development phase to production. For select programs, however, this so-called milestone decision authority rests with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The NRO would take charge of all its programs under the new charter, Carlson said.
As an agency that serves both the Defense Department and intelligence community, the NRO is often given program requirements that are at odds. The new charter would give the NRO director the ability to call a meeting of the agency’s two bosses, the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence, to ensure new programs are being conceived in an executable manner, Carlson said.
“I’m not going to start a program where the requirements aren’t matched to the resources,” Carlson said.
With aging constellations on orbit that were designed to deliver strategic intelligence, the NRO has been working to improve data processing and integration on the ground to provide troops with tactical intelligence information. Its customers are becoming less interested in receiving signals intelligence or imagery and instead want a fully integrated product, Carlson said.
“It really doesn’t matter in my discussions with people whether they want to kill something there, pick up something there, or drop off something there,” he said. “They want a picture with a dot on it. You don’t get that by sending all your signals over to these guys or all your pictures over to these guys. You get it by integrating the ones and zeroes.”
In the last 24 months, the NRO has refined its signals intelligence processing on the ground to the point where the data will very soon be good enough for targeting, Carlson said. Whether that application is allowed will be decided by policymakers, he said.
Meanwhile, the NRO, which has not conducted a launch in 20 months, is entering a critical eight-month period in which it plans to launch five national security satellites, starting with an Atlas 5 launch now slated for Sept. 20. These new spacecraft are planned to replace satellites in rapidly aging constellations that have far outlived their design lives, Carlson said.
“This is the most aggressive launch campaign we’ve had in 20 years,” he said.
The U.S. launch business is “in a little bit of disarray,” in part because the Atlas 5 and4 rockets, which launch the vast majority of U.S. government satellites, have very little commercial business. That means the government must support all of the infrastructure and overhead associated with the vehicles, which is very expensive, he said.
The cost of launching satellites is about to rise even higher, as current prices were negotiated years ago under the assumption of higher launch rates. To ensure the government gets the lowest price on future launches, the NRO, Air Force and NASA are working to figure out how they can buy launches as a single entity instead of individually, Carlson said. This also would provide stability for the rocket industrial base, which could project yearly demand better and optimize its production activities accordingly, he said.