Editorial: Help the NRO Help Itself

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One of the toughest things for any organization to have to do is serve two masters, especially two masters that often have different or even conflicting needs. Such has long been the plight of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which buys and operates the nation’s spy satellites.

The NRO serves the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense, two organizations that have been known to clash over the allocation of resources. The intelligence community often wants information to help answer long-term or strategic questions, such as a potential enemy’s capabilities and intentions, whereas the military tends to focus on more-immediate tactical threats and targets, such as what’s just beyond the sight of its deployed forces.

Oftentimes these missions drive a common set of requirements for space missions, but that isn’t always the case. From time to time, squabbles arise over satellite technical specifications, leaving the NRO caught in the middle. These disputes can stall programs or saddle them with more requirements than can be met with available budgets. This only adds to the already immense challenges the NRO faces in executing programs that are as technically demanding as it gets.

Runaway requirements growth is a bane of U.S. military space development programs in general. But for the NRO, keeping requirements under control is especially challenging because of the diverse needs of its intelligence and military customers, who also answer to different congressional committees that in turn are inclined to protect their legislative turf.

The NRO could better manage its unique circumstances if it had more control over its programs. These programs are funded to varying degrees out of both the military-intelligence and national-intelligence budgets, and as such are subject to oversight from both camps. For most programs, the NRO has what is known as milestone decision authority, government acquisition parlance for the authority to determine when a given program is ready to move to a more advanced stage of development. But for a select few programs, among them some of the biggest, milestone decision authority rests with the Defense Department. Senior defense and intelligence officials meet once a year to review the milestone decision authority status of NRO programs and make changes as they see fit.

In a recent speech in Washington, NRO Director Bruce Carlson expressed hope that a new agency charter — which has since been signed by the director of national intelligence and secretary of defense — would give the agency milestone decision authority over all of its programs.

The new charter also codifies the NRO director’s role as the principal adviser to the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence on overhead reconnaissance programs. This, he said, would empower the NRO director to call a meeting with the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence when their respective requirements for a given program are either incompatible or out of alignment with available budgets.

These measures make perfectly good sense: Who’s in a better position to assess reconnaissance satellites than the agency that has been building them for 50 years?

It remains to be seen how big a difference the charter will actually make on the milestone decision authority question. According to a government source, a clause inserted into the charter late in the drafting process waters down the milestone decision authority provision, raising the possibility that the status quo will yet prevail. Hopefully, the defense secretary and director of national intelligence will in practice live up to the intent of the new charter.

The NRO’s reputation for management competence and technical wizardry has suffered in the last decade as programmatic struggles have come to light. To be sure, these problems cannot all be blamed on forces beyond the agency’s control; the NRO is not immune to internal management failure. Moreover, the immense technical complexity of NRO programs necessarily means that many will greatly exceed cost estimates and some will fail.

But if properly implemented, the new NRO charter — coupled with a new employee retention plan intended to bring more stability to individual programs — will eliminate some of the unnecessary challenges the agency faces in doing its very difficult job.

NRO