NRO Director highlights cooperation and innovation

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COLORADO SPRINGS – The National Reconnaissance Office is working closely with the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command after signing a document that clearly defines each organization’s roles and responsibilities, NRO Director Christopher Scolese said Aug. 24 at the 36th Space Symposium.

The Protect and Defend Strategic Framework signed by Scolese, Space Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations, and U.S. Army Gen. James H. Dickinson, Commander of U.S. Space Command, “formalizes end-to-end operations” between the Defense Department and the intelligence community “on everything from acquisition to operations,” Scolese said. “In practical terms, it defines and deconflict each of our roles. It drives consistent and deliberate coordination at multiple levels. It establishes crisis planning and improves communication. And most importantly, it establishes an unprecedented level of collaboration on all space security matters.”

The creation of the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command in 2019 and the Space Systems Command earlier this year prompted speculation about how the various agencies would share responsibilities. Scolese and Raymond highlighted extensive cooperation in Space Symposium speeches.

“Our relationship with the National Reconnaissance Office has never been stronger,” Raymond said Aug. 24. “The partnership touches everything that we do. We share people. We share operation centers. We launched systems together. We mutually invest and develop programs to deliver new capabilities. And while we have distinct missions, what unites us is that we both operate in the same domain.”

As Scolese mentioned, former NRO Deputy Director Maj. Gen. Michael Guetlein is leading Space Systems Command. With that appointment the relationship between NRO and Space Systems Command “will get even better as time goes on,” Scolese said.

U.S. space agencies are working together to counter global competition in space, Scolese said.

“China and Russia have already shown that space is … a fight,” Scolese said. “If we’re not careful, it’s going to become a knockdown, drag-out brawl, something we all want to avoid.”

Scolese cited Russian and Chinese counterspace weapons and alluded to cyber attacks.

“In short, China is showing an unquenchable drive to get ahead of us and take what’s been our operational intelligence advantage since” John F. Kennedy was in office, Scolese said. “How we fend off this competition and where we go from here largely depends on how much we accelerate our development and how much we’re able to improve the capabilities we already have in space.”

NRO is updating its constellation of intelligence satellites that collect imagery and data for U.S. government agencies and allies.

“Last year, we put 12 payloads in orbit on six launches from two continents in the middle of a pandemic,” Scolese said. “If you count the four payloads we launched earlier this year, it’s almost a payload month.”

In 2022, NRO plans to conduct four launches in 29 days. Still, the agency is striving to adopt advanced technology even faster, Scolese said.

The NRO Director’s Innovation Initiative (DII), for example, supports “the continued rapid infusion of advanced technology options we’re already aware of and ones that we haven’t even discovered,” Scolese said.  “DII gives us access to nontraditional developers that are doing groundbreaking research or exploring cutting edge technologies relevant to our mission that have high payoff potential.”

Currently, NRO has 24 DII projects underway, “covering magnetically levitated gyroscopes, adhesives that can attach and detach in vacuum, and large lightweight apertures,” Scolese said, adding, “We’re still looking for more.”

NRO also is working with the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to take advantage of the communications constellation it’s developing, which will “provide the underpinning for a number of our capabilities,” Scolese said.

NRO seeks to improve resiliency, capacity and capabilities in its future satellite architecture by flying large and small satellites in multiple orbits. In addition, the intelligence agency will continue to take advantage of “commercial partners providing imagery as a service, which allows us to focus on the difficult tasks that industry doesn’t take,” Scolese said.

Commercial contracts for global ground systems will follow the acquisition strategy recently revealed for imagery by including rewards for innovation and new capabilities, Scolese said.

NRO also will continue to procure some commercial launches, which have “lowered the barriers to space by lowering cost and giving us flexibility in launch locations,” Scolese said.