The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is taking on a new strategic direction that features a greater emphasis on ground-based data handling and processing systems, a shift that likely will draw resources from the agency’s classified spy satellite programs.
Experts believe the move is long overdue, given the disparity between the amount of data collected by the hugely expensive satellite platforms and the intelligence community’s ability to process and distribute the information .
NRO Director Don Kerr outlined the new direction in a one-page “Director’s Note” accompanying a policy-guidance document that was issued with limited circulation in April. A copy of the Director’s Note was obtained by Space News.
“The mission of the NRO remains the same — the research, development, acquisition, launch and operation of overhead reconnaissance systems and other missions as directed to solve intelligence problems,” the note states. “However, our focus and the way we execute that mission will change. Our primary deliverable will now become value added information instead of increasing volumes of data.”
Newly available processing technologies could enable major breakthroughs in capability for military and intelligence users, Kerr’s note says.
Kerr said he will appoint an NRO official to evaluate existing and planned ground-segment capabilities, identify key issues and make recommendations on how to move forward.
“Implementing this plan will require a fundamental improvement in the way we collaborate with our mission partners and a change in the way we view ourselves, the way we interact internally, and the way we support our partners, stakeholders, and users,” Kerr wrote. “We should be committed to our mission, not our current outlook or organizational structure.”
This new direction will be implemented over the next year or so, and may lead to job reductions in some areas, according to a source familiar with the NRO.
Despite the increased emphasis on ground processing, the NRO does not plan to encroach on the job of two of its main customers, the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the source said. Those agencies interpret and distribute signals intelligence and imagery-based products, respectively.
The NRO will seek to improve its data handling and dissemination rather than pick up the analysis work traditionally handled by the other intelligence agencies, the source said.
Richard Oborn, an NRO spokesman, said Kerr recently unveiled a strategic framework that establishes a long-term direction for the agency leading to a “single integrated architecture focused on providing multi sensor solutions to intelligence problems.”
Oborn declined further comment.
Martin Faga, a former NRO director, said focusing more attention on ground systems and technology is a step in the right direction.
“In recent years, we’ve been flooded with data — we’ve got to deal with that flood,” said Faga, now president and chief executive officer of the MITRE Corp., a federally funded research and development center based in Bedford, Mass.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank here, said better data processing could be the key to finding targets in satellite images that otherwise might go unnoticed.
While diverting some resources from satellites to ground-processing systems could risk missing some breakthroughs in space-based collection technology, the NRO is unlikely to lose its edge in this area, O’Hanlon said.
One industry source said the amount of money involved likely will have little impact on satellite capabilities, but has the potential for high payoffs on the ground.
NRO contractors with strong information-technology divisions should weather the change nicely, but those that tend to subcontract out for ground systems work could feel some pinch, the industry source said.
In programs where ground and satellite systems are purchased under a single contract, the NRO might be best served by having an information-technology firm take the lead , said another industry source.
The shift is likely to be popular with some congressional aides, who for years have regularly pushed the NRO to improve its information-processing capabilities.
Data processing ” has been the biggest shortfall with [intelligence] systems],” said one Capitol Hill staffer.
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