A cooperative accord between the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is intended to mend ties that had become strained following changes made last year to the U.S. national-security space management structure, according to a senior service official.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, acting director of Air Force Space Command, said the two organizations have maintained a strong relationship since the Pentagon’s decision last summer to make the NRO directorship a stand-alone position for all intents and purposes. Previously the NRO director also served as Air Force undersecretary.
But Klotz said certain areas, such as personnel management, were adversely affected by the split, and the agreement is intended to address that. In addition, it is designed to more closely integrate Air Force and NRO satellite operations and protection, he told reporters during a June 21 conference call.
The Air Force and NRO were directed to work more closely together following recommendations from a space commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld prior to his nomination to serve again as secretary of defense. The Pentagon combined the positions of Air Force undersecretary and NRO director in 2001.
During a June 20 briefing at the Pentagon, NRO Director Donald Kerr described himself as the “first full-time director of the NRO.” While Kerr also is an assistant to the secretary of the Air Force, he said his Air Force responsibilities are less substantial than those of his predecessors.
The Pentagon’s decision last summer to split the Air Force and NRO posts had raised concerns among some defense officials including then-Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper, who said combining the positions had contributed to the “phenomenal” success of getting spy satellite data into the hands of tactical forces during the initial invasion of Iraq.
While the two organizations still maintain a “close and collaborative relationship,” they have identified areas where the bond could be strengthened, Klotz said.
Kerr and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael “Buzz” Moseley signed a memorandum June 7 agreeing on several steps to accomplish that. Primary among those measures is having a two-star Air Force general serve at the NRO, and a civilian NRO official equivalent in rank to a one-star general serve at Air Force Space Command.
Those officials have not yet been named, but a Defense Department source said the likely pick for the NRO position is Maj. Gen. John “Tom” Sheridan, who currently serves as the program executive officer for Space Radar, a joint Air Force-NRO program. Sheridan currently is based near NRO headquarters in Chantilly, Va., and may retain his Space Radar duties, the source said.
Maj. Regina Winchester, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, said that the service plans to use an existing billet for the new position.
The designated Air Force officer will serve as NRO deputy director, with responsibilities that include senior military adviser, commander of all Air Force personnel detailed to the NRO, and the spy satellite agency’s liaison to Air Force Space Command for space professional development. That Air Force officer will be considered the NRO’s No. 3 official; Dennis Fitzgerald, principal deputy director of the NRO, will remain in the No. 2 slot overseeing civilian intelligence officials at the agency, Kerr said.
The NRO official assigned to Air Force Space Command will serve as the senior NRO-intelligence adviser at the command, as well as deputy to Space Command’s air, space and information operations office.
The agreement also establishes a Space Assignment Advisory Board to oversee the Air Force personnel assignments at both organizations. The board will consist of Air Force colonels and civilian-equivalent officials from the NRO, and will be chaired by the vice commander of Air Force Space Command and the Air Force two-star at the NRO.
The board is intended to help improve career development for space professionals within the Air Force and NRO, and help future space leaders gain operations and acquisition experience at each organization, according to the June 7 memo.
Klotz said he sees more Air Force officials moving in and out of the NRO today than in past decades, and that he expects this trend to continue.
The memo also outlines changes in satellite operations. It assigns responsibility for protecting both Air Force and NRO satellites to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The commander of the Vandenberg-based 14th Air Force, who reports to U.S. Strategic Command, runs the center. This official will not have the authority to task NRO assets, according to the memo.
The Air Force and NRO also will develop procedures for backing up each other’s satellite operations centers, according to the memo.
Kerr noted that while the NRO can help the Air Force to a limited degree in detecting threats to satellites, it relies “very heavily” on the service and other Defense Department organizations for this information .
“As we hear about and in some cases see threats to space systems such as a direct ascent [anti-satellite] capability, or other means of interfering with the operation of space systems, we need to adopt new [concepts of operations] for the safety and preservation of our own assets and we need to work very closely with the Air Force in doing that,” Kerr said.
The memo also notes that the two organizations have agreed to pursue a test program to integrate satellite operations within one mission area with the intention of expanding it to additional missions in the future. Those operations would not include satellite tasking, according to the memo.
The Air Force and NRO also will look into ways to cooperate more closely to improve launch operations, the memo says.
Howell Estes, who served on the Rumsfeld space commission, applauded the Air Force-NRO agreement. Better integration of classified and unclassified space assets was one of the key recommendations from the commission, but progress in this area has been slow, said Estes, a retired general who served as commander in chief of U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command.
The new advisory board could help the Air Force address an imbalance in the way it assigns space personnel, Estes said. The service fills nearly all of its allotted slots at the NRO, but only about 60 percent of its positions at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which is responsible for most of its space acquisition, Estes said.