Retired Air Force Col. Pete Rustan was born in Guantanamo City, Cuba. He left the island nation in 1967 at 19 by sneaking through Cuban military checkpoints and swimming across Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. naval base. Rustan was drafted into the Air Force and pursued a 26-year career, retiring in 1997 as a satellite specialist with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and an intimate knowledge of the National Reconnaissance Office, the nation's spy satellite agency. Rustan was best known as mission manager for a space probe called Clementine that tested defense components by mapping the moon. In the late 1990s, Rustan became wealthy as a consultant to the companies that were pioneering low-Earth-orbit satellite communications with what would turn out to be mixed results. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Rustan decided to return to NRO in 2003 as a self-described "change agent." He ushered in new technologies as director of the Advanced Systems and Technology Directorate, and in 2008 he helped create NRO's new Ground Enterprise Directorate. He spoke to Ben Iannotta about his latest role as head of the Mission Support Directorate.
Why did you come back to NRO?
After 9/11, I started feeling bad. I felt money was not an object anymore. I wanted to go back and help my adopted country. I wrote a letter to Gen. [Michael V.] Hayden who was still at NSA, I wrote a letter to [retired Air Force Lt.] Gen. [James R.] Clapper, and I wrote a letter to Peter Teets who was the director here. I told them I was ready to get back to work, and they offered me jobs. It took a little time to negotiate but by 2003 I came back as director of the Advanced Systems and Technology office, which is a large organization that does all the research for the future for our space systems.
How did you end up at the Ground Enterprise Directorate?
In January 08 we were having a restructure. We had a new director then, Scott Large. I went to Scott and said I want to remind you that I have a verbal agreement to leave in five years. He said, "Oh, if we could get you a different job, could you restart the clock and start all over again?" He called me about two days later and offered me to be in charge of the Ground Enterprise Directorate. I was going to create a directorate and put it all together. So in January 08 I started this new directorate to get economies of scales across command and control and processing, mission management in products and services to ensure we do everything that the commercial sector does. I'd been working with the commercial companies quite a bit and understood how to do that.
What was your goal for the Ground Enterprise Directorate?
I had three things in mind: access, content and timeline — A-C-T. People said, what the heck is this A-C-T? I said, it's all about access — we have to make sure that a platoon leader in a forward operating base in Afghanistan or a CIA analyst in some remote location gets access to our data. And the second part is the content. It cannot just be an image or a signal. We have to put it together in a way that it's information, not just a data point. The last aspect was T, which is timeline. How long does it take from the time you collect the data until it is available to the user? The idea was try to reduce that to as close to real-time as possible.
When you say integrating the ground systems, what does that mean?
If you look at commercial companies, for example, processing pixels or processing signals, about 70 percent or 80 percent of what you do is common. Therefore, theoretically, you should be able to take multiple inputs and go through this common processing. Before, Contractor X had this, and contractor Y did this, because the way we bought all our systems was stovepiped. We bought this platform and we bought it end to end.
You mean the satellite?
The satellite, the ground and everything that went into it. It was bought as an entity: vertical integration for each entity. You [could] never integrate something from satellite A with satellite B or C or D because everything was a different format. Every contractor had the right to select his format. And you know what, we had to pay, it was proprietary software. Today, look at the Internet. You request data. It shows up on your screen because everything is the same format.
Did you have to reprogram the satellites to send in a standard format?
No, we have to get information down to the reground and reformat, and try to integrate. One of the major successes that I had when we did the ground was take two contractors: this contractor was doing this processing. This contractor was doing this processing. I say, "You are in the early stages and you are already operational." So guess what? This guy got eliminated. It was called the consolidated processing initiative, and it made a lot of people uncomfortable.
How did you end up at Mission Support?
[Retired Air Force] Gen. Bruce Carlson, our new director, came in July 09. The ground office is right below him. Toward the end of the day he would say, "What are you doing?" I say, "I'm building a new product for the user." I would show him the screen. He said I seemed to be more interested in doing things for the users than in keeping track of traditional acquisition procedure. I said what really excites me is helping to solve a problem that we have in PaCom or a cocom [combatant command] or CentCom, in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or somewhere. I'm a creative type of person. One day he said, "What if you dedicated 100 percent of your time to do the products and services?"
What changes have you made at the Mission Support Directorate?
In the process of solving problems, this organization usually had to go somewhere else because they were not equipped with the people or the finances to actually solve the problem. I want to do both. I want to make sure that we are no longer a data provider but we're information providers.
Not necessarily all the work had to be done inside this organization. I could go to the Ground Enterprise Directorate or I could go to my previous job in [Systems and Technology] and work with them. Maybe it's an operational problem with the way we run the satellite. Maybe we can slow down the beam and dwell more time over this region. Sometimes you have to develop new technology. We have to give our partners information. In commercial IT, everybody started combing everything, so what about mult-int? You take an image and you put signals on it. You compare it with the previous data. I learned in my experience in the commercial business that intelligence was never a picture. It was never a signal. Intelligence follows a pattern. We put the pieces together.
Weren't the analysts at other agencies doing that?
There are not sufficient multi-int analysts in this community. NSA is focused primarily on signals. [The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] is focused on images. CIA is focused on human and open-source information. Who is the multi-int analyst who puts all the pieces together? There are a few in DIA but primarily, we have lost that emphasis. You know me, I don't request permission to do things. I just do it. They don't like it, I get fired. So what? It's important to do the right thing. We get a lot of information from space in multi disciplines and we have been doing a lot of prototyping, integrating all these pieces together.
What do your mission support people do?
I have people deployed all over the world — all the cocoms, U.S. Forces Korea. Our people sit at the table with the J-2, the intelligence director. And he has the NRO person here, the NSA person, the DIA person, he has a CIA person. He says, "OK, let's review what happened for the last 24 hours and what problems I'm expecting in the next 24 hours."
You mean operational questions?
Oh, yeah. What are the issues with North Korea? What has happened over the last 24 hours? He goes ahead and he displays some of the data. In accordance with their background, people are pumping in and adding value to it: Let me show the pattern of people speaking in this part of North Korea. We notice that we only have X number of people on the radio, and then five times as many. Why are people accumulating into that corner? Something is happening. We might not be able to pick up what they are saying, but we know that the number of signals from that region increased.
In Afghanistan, what kind of facilities do your people work in?
We have field reps in Afghanistan. We also have people building specific new devices. In Afghanistan, where we have an active war going on, they day-by-day, 24-by-7 will be keeping track of what's going on and adding value. We have also a data base which has hundreds of products and services and capabilities.
How does your work relate to the Real Time Regional Gateways?
The Real Time Regional Gateway concept started in Iraq as a concept that I helped to develop with our partners. Imagine that you are in Iraq. You have insurgents. They are on the telephone, making phone calls. That signal would be intercepted by ground [antennas], by the aircraft network and by the space network. If you're smart enough to combine all that data in real time, you can determine where Dick is out there. He's in block 23 down there, and he just said he's going to place a bomb. That's the real-time regional gateway: the ability to integrate the signals [for] geolocation.
Is a gateway a room full of people or is it a computer sitting there?
It has been mechanized in various different forms. For the purpose of this discussion, let's say the information from those three devices come into a location where somebody can actually say action is needed, and the tank or the truck or the warfighters [are] right here in this location. He's a colonel, and he can say, "We have verification that this bad guy is in this location: Go and get him."
That is an SAIC program?
SAIC built the initial prototype for that system: the real time regional gateway. Now, that concept has been expanded significantly.
Has the Afghan Mission Network solved the problem of info sharing in Afghanistan?
AMN is a wonderful thing. I would say we're still having difficulty connecting everything together. One thing I would love to do is integrate all the data on a common display because our brain cannot see a picture and signal and this and that on a different display. You should use geospatial information as your background always, because that's how your mind operates. You want to be able to show time sequence. If you want to see what happened over the last two hours, you should be able to go back and superimpose all the signals over those last two hours. That was not happening a year ago. Now I am in the process of sending some touch tables to Afghanistan, to actually have multiple displays of those signals. I actually was going to go to Afghanistan on first of August, but after the change of command I wanted to give [Army] Gen. [David] Petraeus enough room to get settled. One of the things I was going to do is bring three of those touch tables.
Is a touch table like a giant iPad?
A touch table could be the size of this table, or a section of this table, where you have multiple inputs and actually move them with your hand like on an iPhone. You show not just the picture but the topography, the signals, the Predators, the C-12, everything flying across the theater.
How would they be used?
When Petraeus is in the front of the room talking to the RC [Regional Command] North, which is the Germans, and RC West, which is the Italians and the Spaniards, he just moves his fingers and now he has an expansion of RC North. He says, "OK, let me see how I can help you with this issue." He has a huge expansion, he can see everything.
Is this something you've proposed or something you can go set up?
We do it here all time. We do it in JIATF [Joint Interagency Task Force] South in Key West. We do it for the oil spill. When [now-retired] Adm. [Thad] Allen was in Key West talking to our Coast Guard director there he saw one of the touch tables. They were built by Penn State University up here with a contract from us. When he saw them, I got a phone call: "I want to have some of those now."