In spite of emerging threats and the growing importance of space to national defense, NRO “has not fared well in budget battles” in recent years, NRO Director Betty Sapp said April 4 at the 33rd Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell

COLORADO SPRINGS — When members of Donald Trump’s transition team visited the National Reconnaissance Office, they were so impressed by the intelligence organization’s innovation that they asked NRO Director Betty Sapp, “What do you need to go faster?”

“The answer to that is simple: more money and more authority,” Sapp said Tuesday at the 33rd Space Symposium.

In spite of emerging threats and the growing importance of space to national defense, NRO “has not fared well in budget battles” in recent years, Sapp said. “Where you put your budget is your clearest and your truest statement of your real priorities. If you look at what the U.S. has done lately, it doesn’t look like national security space is a priority.”

With a new administration and new people moving into key positions, that could all change, however.

“There is the potential for the U.S. to recognize the fundamental importance of space to intelligence gathering and warfighting,” Sapp said. “I hope we will make a national recommitment to space. We have people with talent, energy and ideas. We just have to provide them the resources and freedom of action to take that leap.”

NRO’s ability to innovate is constrained by the Defense Department and Intelligence Community’s acquisition process, Sapp said.

“There is no program no matter how straightforward and no program manager no matter how experienced and how adroit that is going to work his way through that process anytime soon,” Sapp said. “It takes years just to get underway. If we want to change the pace of progress, we have to fundamentally change that process. We have to change [the] ratio of reviewers to doers and give the doers the freedom of action to actually do.”

NRO has worked hard to ensure all major acquisition programs do not exceed cost, schedule and performance targets set at their outset, Sapp said. The organization also manages its money well, Sapp said, citing eight years of clean audits as evidence.

“You would think that with that record of execution and performance there would be more authority coming to the NRO to manage ourselves,” Sapp said. “That is not really what we are seeing.”

Even research and development is being hurt by the government’s lack of risk tolerance, Sapp said. One small NRO research and development program aimed at “real game-changing technology” ran 11 percent over its budget. That, along with an NRO to reprogram funds for the effort, prompted a major review that was “tough for a program of give people to handle” and it “did not encourage them to take the next risk,” Sapp said.

In contrast, some potential U.S. adversaries are providing increasing funding for space-based intelligence and fostering risk-taking. “They recognize the fundamental importance of space,” Sapp said. “They are spending money to catch up and they don’t mind a few failures on the road forward. That’s the way all of us used to behave.”


Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...