WASHINGTON — Sixty years after its founding, the National Reconnaissance Office is working to adapt to a changing space environment.
The Department of Defense has been consistent in its messaging in recent years: Space is now a war-fighting domain, and America’s adversaries are developing counterspace weapons to undermine U.S. space supremacy. Partly in response, the nation started both the U.S. Space Force and Space Command, reorganizing its military to maintain a competitive edge in space.
The National Reconnaissance Office is adjusting to these changes as well, according to the agency’s director. NRO is the intelligence agency charged with developing, launching and operating America’s fleet of spy satellites, supplementing its own capabilities with new commercial services. Like the Space Force and Space Command, NRO is also confronting the challenge posed by the growing space and counterspace capabilities being developed by America’s adversaries.
“NRO will continue to be a cornerstone in our nation’s strategic and operational upper hand in space through unrivaled situational awareness and intelligence through the best images and signals data on the planet. But to do that, we have to accelerate and we have to improve, particularly in our way to innovate and deliver capability on orbit,” Director Christopher Scolese said July 20 during a Washington Space Business Roundtable event.
Like the DoD, a primary goal of NRO is to change its architecture. American space capabilities have long been defined by so-called exquisite systems: constellations made up of a handful of large, expensive satellites. Counterspace weapons pose a challenge to that approach. If adversaries can destroy or disable just one satellite, they can severely limit the constellation’s coverage and capabilities. The Space Force has responded by pursuing a distributed architecture, with more satellites placed over multiple orbits. That way, the loss of one satellite isn’t debilitating.
NRO’s satellites are classified, making it difficult to understand its architecture. But according to Scolese, the agency is also working to adopt a more distributed architecture.
“We’re making architectural changes to improve resiliency, increase capacity and capabilities, and ensure the delivery of NRO mission essential functions,” said Scolese. “This is a diversified architecture, made up of national and commercial satellites, large and small constellations across multiple orbits.”
A major development for NRO has been the rise of commercial satellite imagery companies, which operate their own satellites and offer imagery as a service. The last few years have seen NRO take over responsibility for acquiring commercial imagery from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, issuing a number of study contracts to see how new commercial offerings can supplement the agency’s own systems. Other commercial capabilities, including launch, production spacecraft and cloud computing have helped the agency move faster and reduce cost while shifting its focus to other areas, said Scolese.
And while NRO is known for moving relatively quickly through the acquisition process, said Scolese, it needs to move even faster.
“Through programs like our Director’s Innovation Initiative, we’re actively seeking out new suppliers, cutting edge technologies and high payoff concepts across the entire spectrum of capabilities. This approach has already given us opportunities to explore applications for artificial intelligence, machine learning, experiment with prototypes and develop diverse and more efficient ways of distributing data,” said Scolese.
NRO has also launched a new Greenlighting program, which puts new technologies developed by nontraditional partners into space to evaluate their performance.
When asked, Scolese also made the case that NRO should remain independent from the Space Force.
“NRO serves a national need. We have a requirement to meet national objectives, not just DoD objectives,” said Scolese, saying the most important thing is to collaborate with the Space Force.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.