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The Evolving Role of the NRO

The NRO Mission

National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite systems collect raw data that are processed into a usable product by the NRO and provided to one of its mission partners for exploitation, analysis and dissemination of the final intelligence product to the customers that originally requested the information.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) develops, acquires, and operates our nation's most sensitive space reconnaissance satellite systems. These systems collect imagery intelligence (IMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) of great value to the U.S. Government.

Until 1992, the existence of the NRO was classified and even its name was not officially acknowledged by the government. Access to the data collected by its satellites was confined to a limited set of customers within highly classified intelligence channels. Today, the existence of the NRO is openly acknowledged and several aspects of its activities have been declassified. Additionally, the data collected by NRO satellites are now available to a wide variety of users in many U.S. Government agencies.

The NRO collects data via its satellites in response to requirements that are established by its customers--the end users of its products. Those requirements are screened through Intelligence Community processes that adjudicate competing requirements and set the priorities for collection. The prioritized requirements are then passed to the NRO for collection by its satellite systems.

NRO satellites collect raw data that are processed by the NRO and then provided to one of its mission partners: the National Security Agency (NSA) for SIGINT, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) for IMINT, or to the Central MASINT Organization (CMO) for MASINT. These entities are responsible for exploitation, analysis and dissemination of the final intelligence product to the customers that originally requested the information. (See graphic "Today's Intelligence Process," which highlights the responsibilities of the NRO in relation to its mission partners.)

Graphic: Today's Intelligence Process

Organizational Change

The significant degree of change in a relatively short period of time has put great strain on the NRO and its personnel and has presented a continuing series of challenges to senior NRO managers.

During its early years, the NRO was primarily involved in developing first-of-a-kind satellite systems for a limited number of strategic intelligence and military customers, and for the most part focused against a single intelligence target--the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. At the outset, the NRO was small and agile. It also had the flexibility and authority to make rapid decisions to pursue high-risk technologies in response to objectives established by the national leadership. As a result, the NRO was able to develop airborne and satellite reconnaissance systems that provided a decisive edge to the United States in its decades-long confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Today's NRO, by contrast, has evolved into a large organization with three main responsibilities:

  • operating the mainstay satellite reconnaissance systems that now serve a large number of tactical customers as well as strategic or "national" customers;

  • acquiring new satellite collection systems that maintain continuity in the data provided to customers and include evolutionary improvements in technology; and

  • conducting leading edge research and technology innovation for future satellite systems that will guarantee global information superiority and continued access to denied areas.

Graphic: NRO Responsibilities

A decision was made in 1992 to consolidate the original NRO programs (Programs A, B and C) into an organization divided along functional lines, e.g., imagery intelligence (IMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), etc. The intent was to gain efficiencies, eliminate redundancies and develop a more centralized and more "corporate" structure for the NRO.

Graphic: NRO Organization

The consolidation was followed by a period of significant upheaval at the NRO. In 1996, a controversy concerning the financial management of the organization led to the replacement of the NRO Director. The increased congressional, DoD and Intelligence Community oversight that resulted inevitably influenced the NRO's organizational practices and management structure. The end result was a larger organizational structure with additional administrative and support functions.

In response to the management challenges presented by the functional consolidation of the NRO and the financial management controversy that had led to the removal of his predecessor, then-Acting NRO Director Keith Hall established a Blue Ribbon group--known as the Jeremiah Panel after its Chairman, Admiral David Jeremiah, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its role was to review the NRO's practices and organization and make recommendations concerning how the NRO should position itself for the future.

After being confirmed by the Senate, NRO Director Hall began to implement the recommendations of the Jeremiah Panel by:

  • restructuring the NRO's internal organization in an attempt to increase its responsiveness to its customers;

  • establishing collaborative relationships with the NRO's mission partners--NIMA and NSA--and its customers throughout the U.S. Government;

  • increasing and stabilizing the level of research and development funding and concentrating those activities in a single, more independent Advanced Systems and Technology Directorate;

  • making NRO systems more tactically relevant by involving DoD in the development of requirements for the next generation NRO imagery satellite system, known as the Future Imagery Architecture;

  • facilitating more effective means for processing and disseminating data derived from NRO systems;

  • placing increased emphasis on information superiority; and

  • changing the NRO's acquisition processes.

In addition to these reform efforts, the NRO was under congressional direction to tighten its internal budgetary controls and strengthen internal oversight mechanisms such as the Office of Inspector General. As mentioned earlier, the end result was a larger organizational structure with added administrative and support functions.

Furthermore, the NRO must now operate in the changed environment that includes many diverse customers and mission partners that have the responsibility for tasking NRO systems and exploiting and disseminating the intelligence data they produce. This significant degree of change in a relatively short period of time has put great strain on the NRO and its personnel and has presented a continuing series of challenges to senior NRO managers.

Finally, and most unfortunately, the NRO no longer commands the personal attention of the President, the Secretary of Defense, the DCI, or senior White House officials with regard to its technology and system acquisition decisions. This reduced attention from the national leadership has come at a time when the challenges to U.S. national security are as threatening and unpredictable as they have ever been. The nation's future security will require decisive leadership, clear direction and attention to detail to ensure the NRO and Intelligence Community are positioned to meet the intelligence challenges facing the United States in the 21st Century.

Changing NRO Responsibilities

Today's NRO must ensure the operation of its large mainstay systems, while simultaneously acquiring evolutionary upgraded systems and developing future technologies.

Throughout its history, the NRO has met the challenge of providing innovative, space-based reconnaissance solutions to difficult intelligence problems. Since the earliest days of the Corona spy satellites when the NRO developed the first space-based photographic capability, the NRO has remained on the leading edge of space technology.

As explained earlier, today's NRO has three parallel responsibilities. It must ensure the operation of its large mainstay systems, while simultaneously acquiring evolutionary upgraded systems and developing future technologies. It must do all of this in a new environment that includes many more customers and mission partners.

The NRO has rendered extremely valuable non-space-related services over the years by providing terrestrial communications systems, visualization tools, imagery exploitation systems, and technical problem-solving skills to U.S. combatant commands and military departments when no other entity was willing, capable, or agile enough to do so. However, such activities have tended to divert the NRO's attention from what it is best suited to do: design, acquire and launch reconnaissance satellites that can help resolve the most difficult intelligence collection problems.

The Commission reviewed three types of proposals for altering the NRO's activities in order to focus the NRO on pursuing and applying advanced space-based or space-related technologies:

  • transferring systems;

  • transferring functions; and

  • limiting the NRO's role in tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination.

Proposed Transfer of Systems. The Commission received testimony advocating the transfer of some NRO activities and operations to DoD. Such an approach was advocated in order to:

  • enable the NRO to focus on developing unique space-based collection systems to solve difficult intelligence problems; and

  • allow DoD to be responsible for developing and operating those space systems that are better suited to satisfying the needs of its military commanders.

Combatant Commanders and military departments now have specific validated requirements for space collection systems. Moreover, the military departments are charged by statute to "organize, train and equip" U.S. military forces and may be better positioned to accept responsibility for the space systems that are increasingly relied upon by the military and integrated into its weapons systems.

As discussed elsewhere in this Report, tensions have been heightened regarding the use of NRO systems to support both strategic and tactical customers. Transferring development or operational responsibilities for these systems to DoD would place an enormous burden on DoD to demonstrate that it could satisfy both sets of requirements.

Further, NRO satellites are substantially more complex than DoD satellites, so that the associated expertise would also have to be transferred in conjunction with any transfer of operational responsibilities. DoD's ability to operate space systems may be more advanced now than in the past, but any such transfer would require that such activities be staffed with an adequate force of contractors and military engineering personnel sufficiently proficient to understand the more complex NRO systems. In this regard, the Commission notes that the Air Force's Space Based Infrared System satellite program offers an opportunity for the Air Force to demonstrate the capability to acquire, operate and maintain an actively tasked collection system similar in complexity to NRO systems.

On balance, the Commission is not persuaded that such transfers are warranted at this time, and notes that the minimum criteria that should be satisfied before such transfers of responsibility could be considered include:

  • demonstrated clear and discrete benefits to all military, intelligence and other customers;

  • creation of additional opportunities for the NRO to focus its resources and intellectual capital on critical technology development activities; and

  • guarantees that the necessary expertise is readily available within or transferred to the receiving entity to operate or develop these systems effectively in light of their unique complexities.

Proposed Transfer of Functions. Current divisions of responsibility for the production of imagery intelligence (IMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and measurement and signature (MASINT) intelligence, as well as budget and mission distinctions among the NRO and its mission partners, are not as clear as they should be. To deal with these issues, it was suggested in testimony that NRO SIGINT and IMINT research and development activities, or the entirety of the NRO's SIGINT and IMINT organizations, be assigned to NSA and NIMA, respectively.

The Commission believes transfers of SIGINT and IMINT responsibilities from the NRO to NSA and NIMA could be destructive of U.S. capabilities to collect intelligence from space in the long run. NSA and NIMA are directly responsible for providing SIGINT and IMINT to U.S. Government officials and military forces. They face voracious current and near-term demands for these products. Thus, budget and program pressures would tempt these agencies to take resources from the development of future space-based capabilities and devote them instead to current collection, analysis and production programs.

The NRO's Role in Tasking, Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (TPED). Serious questions have been raised by the NRO's customers and mission partners regarding the appropriate nature and scope of the NRO's role in tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination (TPED) functions. The TPED area is an example of the type of problems associated with NRO participation in activities that can be accommodated within the terms of the NRO's current Mission Statement because they are related to intelligence, yet are not space-related.

The NRO has often approached its mission from an "end-to-end" perspective. Not only did the NRO build satellites to collect information, it built capabilities to task the satellites, process the information they collected and disseminate it to its primary users. By taking this comprehensive approach, the NRO was able to develop advanced satellite systems and associated capabilities that better served its customers' needs.

However, the structure of the Intelligence Community has changed. New organizations exist and many intelligence functions are now shared. Tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination functions are dispersed throughout the Intelligence Community. Some officials are concerned the NRO is duplicating efforts in areas for which other agencies now have primary responsibility.

The National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and the Central MASINT Organization bear primary responsibility for tasking NRO systems, processing the data they collect and disseminating the information. At the same time, the NRO is responsible for ensuring its satellites operate efficiently and effectively.

In developing TPED processes in connection with its own systems, the NRO often has found innovative solutions to difficult problems in these areas. The Commission recognizes the NRO has expertise that can be applied profitably to developing future TPED processes. However, the basic role of the NRO should be to support its mission partners who have primary responsibility for the TPED mission.

To ensure the design and acquisition of future satellite collection systems fully incorporates TPED processes, the Commission believes it important that the responsibilities for TPED be carefully delineated. The Secretary of Defense and DCI should carefully review the assignment of TPED responsibilities and ensure that satellite collection capabilities do not outstrip TPED capacities and that future NRO satellite acquisitions address the responsibility and funding for end-to-end integration of TPED functions.

  • The Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence must direct that the NRO mission be updated and focused as a first priority on the development, acquisition and operation of highly advanced technology for space reconnaissance systems and supporting space-related intelligence activities, in accordance with current law.

  • The Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence should determine the proper roles for the NRO, National Security Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and Central MASINT Organization in tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination activities.

NRO Technological Innovation

The key to future space-based access and to future capability in the face of actions by those who would conceal their own capability, intent and will is technology.

From the NRO's inception, its core function has been the acquisition and application of new, advanced and synergistic technologies. Indeed, one key reason for creating it was in part to facilitate the process of conducting focused research and development (R&D) and the development of plans, policies, procedures, and other mechanisms to integrate "leap ahead" and "revolutionary" technologies into the space reconnaissance effort.

The NRO gained a well-deserved reputation, over time, as the preeminent research, development and acquisition (RD&A) organization in the Intelligence Community and in DoD. This reputation spread into the commercial and private RD&A and production communities, and to this day the NRO enjoys a reputation among the contractor community as the easiest and most effective element of the U.S. Government to deal with in these endeavors.

However, increasing bureaucracy and other changes in the NRO's organizational and operating structure have begun to take their toll. Some critics, commercial and governmental, who appeared before the Commission, speculated or asserted that the NRO had lost its streamlined acquisition and integration capability, and had lost its edge with regard to the development and application of new technologies.

The Commission believes that the NRO is clearly embracing its role in RD&A, in accepting new ideas, concepts and base technologies from any source, and in applying these "leap ahead" and "revolutionary" technologies to its work. The NRO has several programs for outreach to the private, individual and commercial communities, to laboratories and to academia. However, it must then evaluate and assess the "next great idea" or the "best technology anyone ever heard of" in the harsh light of science and engineering and in the cold context of resource limitations.

It is apparent that the NRO is working on innovative and synergistic technologies. Its focus is as it should be--on technologies that will enhance, improve, or even fundamentally change the way in which the United States engages in space-based reconnaissance. In order to find and develop the required technologies, the NRO has few limits. It is true that a variety of rules and regulations have been inserted into its "streamlined" acquisition process, with good reason, to ensure that tax dollars are spent effectively and efficiently. It is still apparent, however, that the NRO can and does get things done as fast as any agency in the U.S. Government, especially with regard to the insertion of "change" technologies.

One key shortcoming in the current NRO process for "operationalizing" technology is the decision-making process following the research and development phase to acquire and apply the technology. Much of what the NRO does in operationalizing technology is now viewed by critics and supporters alike as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This is an accurate perception. It reflects the reality of the current decision process. That process has devolved over the years from an examination of the technologies and an appraisal of their merits, to the budget process, in which technologies are evaluated largely according to resource considerations.

Not only is the budget mechanism ill-suited to be the most influential decision-making element in the review of new technologies, but the people in that process are seldom equipped to make good technology judgments. In fact, general knowledge about what the NRO does and how it does it, and for what reasons, is sadly lacking outside the NRO. Even inside the NRO, some personnel are not fully aware of organizational goals with regard to technology applications. Decision-makers and leaders must somehow be equipped with the information and understanding they need to make good decisions.

As the nation moves into the future, the traditional strength of NRO systems to transcend geopolitical limits and to look into restricted or denied areas in any conditions will become more important than ever. Many, if not most, of our adversaries know this all too well. They have taken extraordinary steps to harden and protect their capabilities and to deny access. The key to future space-based access and to future capability in the face of actions by those who would conceal their own capability, intent and will is technology.

This simple concept is all-important. It sums up the reason for the Commission's view that technology is a vital component of ensuring U.S. preeminence in knowledge about developments worldwide. The Commission urges the NRO to ensure that we remain on or ahead of the leading edge of the technology revolution.

  • The President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence must pay close attention to the level of funding and support for the NRO Director's research, development and acquisition effort.

  • The Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence should ensure common understanding of the NRO's current and future capabilities and the application of its technology to satisfy the needs of its mission partners and customers