Shrinking Budgets Threaten NRO’s Technology Demo Program

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SAN ANTONIO – The U.S. agency that operates the nation’s secret national security satellites is concerned that the coming budget cuts will force it to cut science and technology demonstration missions because of the difficulty of scaling back large satellite programs already under way.

Bruce A. Carlson, director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), said 60 percent of the technology the NRO is launching today — six satellites in 2011 and four more planned in 2012 — came from the agency’s small-satellite program. It is here that instruments are tested in orbit before being placed on NRO’s larger spacecraft for operational use.

Addressing the Geoint 2011 symposium here Oct. 17, Carlson said while the NRO wants to keep its current technology introduction model, it may not be easy because small technology missions are easier to cut from the budget than the large, multiyear satellites that account for a bigger share of the budget.

“Most of our money is used for large acquisitions,” Carlson said, referring to imaging and signals-intelligence spacecraft. “They are like freight trains in that they take a long time to get started. But once they get going they are hard to stop. So if we need to find savings in the 2013 and 2014 budgets, they will have to come from the science and technology budget. I hate to do that.”

Another area that could be cut, he said, is the NRO’s contracting work force. Eliminating employees yields the most savings, Carlson said. “I can hand out pink slips to contractors” to reduce the budget.

“The [satellite] ground stations I run are really small-budget items,” he said. “So it will be difficult to find real savings without getting rid of people.”

Having NRO adopt small-satellite designs will not be feasible given the mission requirements the agency is asked to meet.

”If requirements change, we will use more small satellites,” Carlson said. “But today, the requirements set is fairly demanding and needs large platforms. But I don’t get an award for the most expensive satellite.”

Carlson said the agency is performing at a level that is much more efficient with taxpayer money.

“We launched six satellites in seven months,” he said. “That is the first time in 25 years that we have done that, and when we did it before it was with twice the number of people, twice the infrastructure and with a much bigger budget. This is not your grandfather’s NRO.”

In addition to wringing savings from satellite contractors, he said, NRO is squeezing extra life from what he called its “old, decrepit constellation,” which has proved sufficiently flexible to be turned to new uses.

“A satellite that was first designed to monitor long-haul communications in the Soviet Union is now monitoring portable hand-held devices in Afghanistan and geo-locating them with the help of airborne assets,” he said.

One immediate goal, he said, is to push NRO data into the hands of soldiers who do not have access to it despite the fact that it is not classified to a level that would prohibit its use by warfighters. Some 95 percent of the geospatial-intelligence data for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and 90 percent of the National Security Agency’s signals-intelligence data could be given to front-line soldiers.

“The vast majority is not top secret,” Carlson said. “But only 5 percent of our soldiers have direct access to that data.“

In addition to concerns about cutting the agency’s technology seedbed, NRO is focusing on assuring that cuts do not inadvertently fall on areas that would compromise the U.S. industrial base. An interagency working group has been created to assess which technologies or industrial capabilities must be protected, and which can be let go.

Whatever the budget picture, Carlson said he is not concerned that the current U.S. lead in military space capacity will be overtaken by other nations.

“I am not worried” about other nations catching up, he said. “We are better than everybody else” by such a wide margin that this is not a near-term threat. “What I am worried about is other nations realizing that and going after it in some way. I am worried about people exploiting that as one of our Achilles’ heels.”