Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, hinted in a speech at the Geoint 2015 conference that one organization in the broader national security community isn't moving fast enough to protect satellites. Credit: USGIF

WASHINGTON – While U.S. Defense Department officials in recent months have repeatedly cited the need to make military satellite constellations less vulnerable, at least one entity within the broader national security community isn’t moving quickly enough, at least for the likes of one top intelligence official.

Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, said here June 25 that her organization has made a significant shift in a next-generation program to emphasize resiliency. An infrequent speaker who rarely grants interviews, Sapp used part of her 20-minute speech at the Geoint 2015 Symposium to complain that at least one organization doesn’t seem to share her sense of urgency on that front.

The NRO, Sapp said, recently suggested a “fundamental shift to one of our next-generation systems” as a way to increase resiliency. But without naming names, she said the response the NRO received was “What is the urgency?” and “You’re going too fast.”

“Looks like the cultural change hasn’t quite spread every place it needs to yet,” Sapp said. In slides accompanying her speech, Sapp sarcastically labeled the response in question as “helpful.”

The NRO’s push for better resiliency in its satellite architecture followed a closed-door speech to industry by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work at the annual Space Symposium in April. At the time, Work said “We must prepare now for a war-fighting domain … and just thinking about it now is no longer good enough,” according to Sapp.

Work’s comments, as described by Sapp, echoed those of other senior defense and intelligence officials who have become alarmed at what they say are emerging threats to U.S. space assets from China and Russia. As a result, according to sources, the Pentagon and intelligence community have budgeted as much as $8 billion over the next five years for what are being described as space protection activities, a broad category that ranges from space surveillance to counter space measures.

The NRO is “very focused” on resilience and has made “huge investments to that end, huge investments in a tough budget environment so you know it’s a priority for us,” Sapp said.

“Five years ago, no NRO program manager would have put a dollar into resilience that could have been put into mission capability,” Sapp said. “Now my program managers realize that a dollar spent on resilience is a dollar put into mission capability and a mission capability that can survive against space based and ground based threats.”

In 2006, Donald Kerr, who at the time was NRO director, said one of the organization’s satellites had been illuminated by a ground-based laser operating in China.

Meanwhile, Sapp also offered a tidbit of information about the NROL-35 mission, which launched in December 2014 from Vandenberg Air Force base in California.  The NRO typically offers little to no information about its missions.

Sapp said that satellite had the same name as a predecessor – many NRO satellites share the same name – but was nearly 90 percent different in terms of technology. The satellite also met cost and schedule estimates, she said.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.