McLEAN, Va. — In his first meeting with reporters as director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Christopher Scolese said the agency is focused on staying ahead of China and on forging closer ties with U.S. Space Command to ensure the nation’s satellites can be defended during a conflict.

Scolese, a longtime NASA executive who was tapped in February to lead the NRO, is the first Senate confirmed director of the organization. Five months into the job, one of his key messages to the workforce is “how important it is for us to move quickly with technology,” Scolese said Dec. 3.

After meeting with a small group of reporters, Scolese addressed a dinner event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. That speech was closed to media.

China’s advances in space are a major concern, Scolese said. “They are putting spacecraft up very quickly and we have to stay ahead. We are still the world leader but we have challenges.”

The NRO, which develops the nation’s spy satellites, started out as a secret program in 1960, established jointly by the Air Force and the CIA. Its existence was declassified in 1992. About 40 percent of NRO employees are members of the U.S. Air Force, and the rest are civilians and CIA employees. The size of the workforce is classified.

Scolese said there are efforts underway to modernize satellites and ground systems to improve the speed and quality of data. “One of our priorities is on-board processing so we can deliver data more effectively to the warfighter in the field and help get information from the sensor to the user as quickly as possible,” he said.

The NRO also is interested in using small satellites to take advantage of the growing availability of smaller launch vehicles that can provide a faster response, he said. In ground systems, the agency is upgrading its cloud computing infrastructure and using artificial intelligence to help analysts work faster.

The NRO will continue to operate a mix of satellites of many sizes, he said. “Physics ultimately decides how big or how small and how many,” Scolese added. “Clearly we’re going to need a diverse architecture. We’re very much looking at proliferated architectures to increase revisit time, to reduce latency and provide resiliency and fast refresh when you need it.” There will also be “some number of large satellites to address questions that only they can address.”

Scolese highlighted his tight working relationship with U.S. Space Command and its commander Gen. John Raymond. Scolese and Raymond had a joint confirmation hearing June 4 in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Our partnership with U.S. Space Command is going really well,” he said. “General Raymond and I talk regularly … We are building some things together and developing tactics, techniques and procedures on how we’re going to operate.”

“We have agreed that in times of conflict we’ll take direction from Space Command,” said Scolese. “We need to have unity of effort to protect satellites and the information we get. It’s not going to be easy.” The NRO is increasing its participation in multinational space war rehearsals like the Schriever Wargames. During the recent games, he said, “we learned some things.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...