NRO nominee thrust into Space Force debate

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If confirmed by the Senate, Chris Scolese would be taking over the NRO amid a push by the administration to stand up a new military branch for space and develop closer ties between the Defense Department and the NRO.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s nominee to run the National Reconnaissance Office, Christopher Scolese, served in the Navy and worked as a DoD civilian but has spent most of his government career at NASA.

If confirmed by the Senate, Scolese would be the first political appointee to run the NRO. And he would be taking over the NRO amid a push by the administration to stand up a new military branch for space and develop closer ties between the Defense Department and the NRO.

“One of his challenges will be to figure out how the NRO, NASA and the Space Force will work together,” said Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, who worked with Scolese on satellite programs.

“He is in a perfect position to do that because he won’t be viewed as someone from the intelligence side, or from the defense side,” Loverro told SpaceNews. “He can bring defense and intelligence closer together.”

Currently the director of the Goddard Space Flight Center — NASA’s largest — Scolese would come into the NRO with an outsider perspective. Since the secret spy satellite agency was created in 1961, most of its leaders have been former military officers or career civilians who come from the Defense Department or the Central Intelligence Agency.

Scolese was recognized last year by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for having “a rare blend of technical achievements and managerial skills.” Loverro said Scolese’s expertise running large government bureaucracies and steering complex space programs make him a good choice to run the NRO.

The nominee has strong support from the Pentagon’s top leadership, notably from Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, a former administrator of NASA. After Griffin stepped down, Scolese in 2009 served as acting NASA administrator until the new administrator Charles Bolden was sworn in.

Loverro noted that Scolese, like Griffin, has sought to push the limits of technology. “Chris is a technologist, he understands what’s possible, and I think he’ll look to some bold new initiatives at the NRO,” including greater use of privately developed space technology. “I think you’ll see Chris go more toward the commercial side,” said Loverro. At NASA he was a proponent of inserting cutting-edge commercial technology into programs, he said. “I think he will accelerate that.”

NRO’s current director Betty Sapp has been in charge of the agency since 2012. Scolese would be the first director to be nominated as a political appointee. Previously directors were appointed by the secretary of defense with the concurrence of the director of national intelligence.

Congress changed that in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014. The law amended the National Security Act of 1947 to require the president to appoint the NRO director with the advice and consent of the Senate. Sapp was grandfathered. Scolese would serve as a Trump appointee so the next administration could choose to let him stay or replace him.

Before the White House decided to nominate Scolese, another candidate said to have been on the short list to run the NRO was Troy Meink, the director of the NRO’s geospatial intelligence directorate, who previously served as deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space.

One of 17 intelligence community agencies with a workforce of about 3,000 people, the NRO is headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia. It develops and operates overhead reconnaissance satellites and conducts intelligence-related activities. It operates ground stations at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado; Fort Belvoir, Virginia; White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico; and has a presence at the Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, Australia, and the Royal Air Force Base Menwith Hill Station, United Kingdom. NRO launches satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

After Trump in June directed the Pentagon to form a new military branch for space, one issue that stirred a heated debate was whether the Space Force should be combined with the NRO. An outright merger was taken off the table, but several proposals have called for closer ties between DoD and the NRO on national security space matters.

In a congressionally mandated report in August 2018, the Pentagon said that a “whole-of-government approach” would be needed to achieve the president’s vision. “As the Space Force is established and grows, whole of government considerations include improved integration with other space organizations across the intelligence community …. including the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.”

The Air Force took this further. In a September memo, it recommended naming the next director of the NRO also the director of the Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office in order to establish “unity of command” and reduce duplication in space programs.

A recent draft of a White House memo that directs the establishment of the Space Force calls on the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense to “create and enhance mechanisms for collaboration between DoD and the intelligence community in order to increase unity of effort and the effectiveness of space operations.”