OpEd: A New Standard for National Reconnaissance


By Christopher K. Tucker

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was formed during the Cold War when reconnaissance over a large, denied portion of the world’s geography was a strategic national priority. A unique organization whose successes are still shrouded in secrecy, the NRO led a revolution in satellite remote sensing and helped the United States win the Cold War.

Yet, the world has changed. Threats have evolved. Technology has created entirely new opportunities. While valiant efforts have been made to reform and revamp national reconnaissance over the past decade, the resulting marginal improvements in on-orbit capabilities have not justified the staggering cost. This surely is one of the major reasons why Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair has convened yet another panel to review the NRO. However, I would argue that this panel should be focused on a different problem.

The commoditization of sensors and even platforms moved us into an era that operates in a fundamentally different way than the era in which the NRO was born. In light of the global explosion in space-based, airborne, mobile, in situ and remote terrestrial sensors – where even soldiers and networks themselves have become sensors – we must move beyond target-based “reconnaissance” as our organizing principle. As the number and variety of sensors and platforms continue to proliferate worldwide, and as they become networked and interactive, the traditional primacy of highly classified, space-based reconnaissance must be reconsidered.

It is time for an institutional construct that realizes that American national security in the 21st century will depend upon time-dominant observation across the domains of the sea, surface, subsurface, air and space. It is time for an institutional construct that is committed to embracing the cross-domain security technologies that have come of age, and to enabling a new architecture predicated on the “need to share.” It is time for an NRO that is fundamentally designed to network and leverage the vast array of sensors that are already deployed, regardless of who built them or who operates them. The key to doing so is a new institutional construct empowered to enforce a common set of architectural standards, and to run an infrastructure that will enable mission applications across the U.S. national security community to competently task and dynamically discover and access data from a massively distributed sensor web, such as that described above.

Any reconceived or restructured NRO must be designed to enable a TCPED (tasking, collecting, processing, exploiting, disseminating) capable of constructing and executing time-dominant, cross-sensor, multi-phenomenology, interactive collection campaigns, which can involve on-the-fly plug-and-play of sensors of any kind by any intelligence component, military echelon, homeland security component, or law enforcement team on any network of any classification. These collection campaigns must result in time-dominant dissemination to users anywhere, especially at the tactical/operational edge.

The international community has already envisioned the future of massively distributed, heterogeneous sensor webs where users can dynamically construct and execute cross-sensor, multi-phenomenology, interactive collection campaigns that span the globe. While the national security community did play a role in the development of these standards, the Sensor Web Enablement (SWE) architecture was the result of an industry-driven implementation-level technical standards specification process by the international members of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), www.opengeospatial.org. Perhaps one of the clearest examples that the NRO has been frozen in time is that it has played virtually no role in the development of this standards-based architecture.

We must seriously examine how to leverage the best of the NRO of yesteryear into the entirely new reality that has evolved since the Cold War. We must apply it to an entirely new set of challenges and revolutionize our thinking in order to construct an institution, with ample authorities, sustained investment and clear reporting lines – like that which the NRO of yesteryear enjoyed – so that America is equipped for the future. If done properly, the result will be an NRO that will look very different and may even carry a different acronym.

Drawing upon the available OGC SWE architecture, a new generation of technical backbone must be deployed and managed by the NRO’s successor as a utility for the entire U.S. national security community to include its Commonwealth and coalition partners. To do this, the existing technology acquisition strategies, policies and organization must be abandoned. It is very clear that the space-based platform and sensor acquisition process must be overhauled. But, to do this without thinking in terms of sensor webs would be a huge missed opportunity and the source of a long-term, strategic competitive disadvantage to the U.S. national security posture. I would encourage Adm. Blair to think in these terms as he works with the NRO review panel, which he recently convened.

Christopher K. Tucker, Ph.D., is the founding chief strategic officer of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s Venture Capital Fund, and a board member of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.