SAFSP Alumni Holiday Party

Presented By

Keith R. Hall, Director, National Reconnaissance Office

6 December 1997

Good evening. It's a pleasure to be with you to celebrate the holidays, to pay tribute to the Office of Special Projects (SAFSP), and to welcome the new SAFSP Alumni association. We have to celebrate twice as hard tonight to make up for the party we missed last year. I would like to thank the Alumni Association for sponsoring this event. It takes a lot of hard work and organization to throw a good party. We all need a good opportunity to get together, so you have performed a real service, especially tonight. It got me out of D. C. -- Darkness and Confusion.

This, of course, is much more than just a holiday party; it is an opportunity to make a long-awaited announcement. Tonight, for the first time, we will speak openly about some of the achievements of the Air Force Special Projects Organization.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome the spouses, family, and friends of the people who were assigned to or who worked closely with the SP organization. You have supported the careers of people who worked long, hard, and with great dedication. At the same time, you probably know little about the details of their work. And if you do -- don't tell Fred Riccardi! Well, to put it mildly, we owe you an explanation. We probably owe you lots of explanations, but I'm only going to offer one tonight.

First, let me repeat who I am. I am the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space and the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office or “NRO”. If a Director of NRO had introduced himself that way in an open forum a few years ago, there would have been an audible gasp. There was some joke that the letters NRO stood for “Not Referred to Openly.” In 1992, we made public the fact that there was an NRO and that it designs, builds, and operates reconnaissance satellites for the United States. Slowly, we are declassifying some other aspects of our work and our organization.

Today we formally declassified the fact that SP was an integral part of the NRO. Tonight I am announcing that fact for the first time in an unclassified setting. You may now gasp!

Let me give you a little background on Special Projects. From the time that NRO was created in 1961, SP served as the Air Force arm of the organization. Indeed, SP was up and running before NRO was formally established. Besides SP, which was also known as Program A, the NRO had a Central Intelligence Agency element, Program B, and a United States Navy element, Program C.

Tonight, I am going to give a very short explanation of why the NRO and SAFSP were created, why they were classified and why certain aspects must remain classified. And I will touch on just a few of the many contributions SP has made to our national security and the well being of our country.

In the 1950s, our nation's very existence came under threat from the former Soviet Union. The Soviets were putting a great deal of energy and resources into building a strategic nuclear force and they were actively testing nuclear weapons. There was much debate in this country about whether or not they could launch a nuclear attack against us.

There was a also great deal of fear. Many Americans thought that Soviet capabilities had outstripped our own. There was anxious talk of the Bomber Gap and the Missile Gap. Some of you may remember the days when people built bomb shelters and stocked them with cans of Spam. I remember so-called “Duck Drills” in school when the teacher yelled “duck” and we all dove under our desks! At that time, if you can imagine it, the fear of Moscow was far greater than the fear of cholesterol.

Decisions based on fear and imagination are generally bad ones. Our leaders needed real, concrete information on Soviet military capabilities. Without that, they had no way to build weapons that could deter a Soviet attack. They had no way to decide whether or not a threat justified the use of our own nuclear weapons. To base a decision like that on fear would be disastrous.

But hard information about the Soviet Union was hard to come by. It was a closed society. Borders were tightly controlled and Soviet citizens had learned that contact with foreigners, particularly Americans, could carry grave consequences. Moreover the country was enormous, it spanned 11 time zones and included some of the world's harshest and most inhospitable terrain. Traditional methods of intelligence collection couldn't give us the information that we needed.

The U-2 reconnaissance plane offered a temporary solution to this dilemma. Then, in May of 1960, Francis Gary Powers' plane was shot down. It was an enormous political embarrassment for the United States. Clearly, we needed a way to obtain information that would not put our people and our international reputation at risk.

Fortunately, several years earlier, President Eisenhower had attached the highest priority to a top secret program to develop reconnaissance satellites. After a series of initial failures, in August of 1960 the US successfully launched the CORONA satellite and recovered the first film imaging from space -- ironically, it was the same day that Gary Powers was brought to trial in Moscow. With this launch, the amount of intelligence we could collect on the Soviet Union, and other parts of the world, increased exponentially.

Because satellite reconnaissance was so extraordinarily important to our national security, we couldn't afford to have it bogged down in bureaucracy. The National Reconnaissance Office was established to develop and operate these capabilities outside the normal government channels.

The new organization had to operate under the strictest secrecy for a number of reasons. First, we had to avoid international opposition to the use of satellite reconnaissance over foreign territory. Second, we had to keep this new technology from falling into the hands of our adversaries. Third, we had to keep intelligence derived from this source under tight control so that our adversaries would not find out the type of information we could collect and figure out how to hide it from us in the future.

For these reasons, we could not even acknowledge the existence of the NRO. The people who worked for the NRO, including the men and women of SP, could not discuss the specifics of their jobs or reveal any information that would confirm that we were using satellites for reconnaissance. More often than not, what SP people were doing, and locations they were visiting, were highly classified.

For the next 35 years, Special Projects continued as the Air Force arm of the NRO. Under its early leaders, Generals Greer, Martin, and King, SP pioneered the streamlined management and contracting processes that allowed us to turn vision into reality in record time. They built and launched the early satellite systems: CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD. In later years, under Generals Allen, Bradburn, Kulpa, Jacobson, and Lindsay, SP continued to build new systems and invent techniques to launch satellites and get the data back exclusively in our hands. And, of course, it was Generals Walker, Scanlan, and now Larned who skippered the transition from SP to our current arrangement. The names and details of these later satellites are still classified. But I can say that our systems were always the best in the world; they were always years ahead of what anyone else was doing. And, more often than not, they represented unique capabilities for the United States.

Each of NRO's elements -- SP, CIA, and the Navy -- built and operated satellites. Special Projects was responsible for launching them all. As you well know, the launch is the riskiest phase in the deployment of a satellite. There were some glitches along the way. An early launch from Cape Canaveral failed to orbit and some of the debris landed in a Cuban pasture, killing a cow. It was the first time that US space capabilities had been used to make ground beef. We decided not to pursue that particular mission area and started launching from Vandenberg. Kidding aside, the vast majority of launches were successful. I would like to thank Special Projects for providing this critical service for NRO.

The satellites built and launched by SP collected information that allowed our leaders to steer a safe and prudent course through the Cold War. To quote from President Lyndon Johnson:

“If nothing else had come out of [the space program] except the knowledge we've gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost. Because tonight we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn't need to do. We were building things we didn't need to build. We were harboring fears we didn't need to harbor.”

As Cold War tensions began to ease, satellites became the principal so-called “national technical means” to monitor and verify arms control treaties. Indeed, without our satellite monitoring capability, these treaties would have probably never been signed.

Today satellites play a major role in monitoring post-Cold War threats to our national security. They keep a constant watch on the military deployments of North Korea, China, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Bosnia and others. A critical mission for NRO is support to battlefield operations. Information from satellite reconnaissance helps to save the lives of our warfighters and give them an incredible advantage on the battlefield. Our satellites also collect valuable data on environmental issues and allow us to monitor compliance with environmental treaties. Indeed, whenever our national leaders or our military commanders must make a decision that affects our national security, the NRO is there with critical information.

We have raised a generation of leaders who count on a wide array of space services, including communications, navigation, warning, weather, imagery, and signals intelligence. At a recent ceremony, the first few NRO directors recalled how satellite reconnaissance once captured the rapt attention of our leaders and senior policy makers. If they didn't get their film, the President called. Today these capabilities are so reliable -- and they have become such an integral part of our national decisionmaking and military operations -- that our leaders don't give them a second thought. It's a testimony to the effectiveness of Special Projects and the rest of our government-industry team. We delivered these marvelous capabilities to our national leadership and, for nearly 2 decades, we have provided continuous service without interruption 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Despite the fact that we are often taken for granted, there is a growing recognition that space is a critical component in this country's future.

The event that really brought this realization home was Desert Storm. The Air Force COS has correctly dubbed Desert Storm the “first space war.” That brief, lop-sided conflict taught the United States -- and the rest of the world -- the meaning of space dominance. Let me assure you that no one in this country ever wants to learn what it means to lose space dominance.

On that note, let me say a few words about the NRO's future. It is absolutely critical that we go forward as one team, if we are to maintain our space advantage at a time when we must compete for declining funds.

We have now merged Programs A, B, C. Perhaps the most difficult part of this merger was the forced mating of the Program A owl and the Program B eagle. When we first proposed this idea, it met with vigorous opposition from leading ornithologists, the Humane Society, and, not in the least, from the owl and the eagle. Despite some really horrendous squawking, we went ahead. We had to. The rivalry symbolized by the owl and the eagle was no longer a constructive force that stimulated creative competition; it had on occasion become a destructive force that prevented us from achieving our full potential. Our new principle line organizations, IMINT, SIGINT, Comm, and technology, are working together in an effective partnership. We are in a much better position to face future challenges.

When I first came to this job, I was struck by three things: first, NRO was flying amazing birds; second, NRO was buying extraordinary capability; and third, the NRO was not putting enough effort into “eyeing” future systems. We lacked a vision of the future. I felt strongly that NRO could not afford to take for granted its continued edge in space. We had to plan to keep that edge and we had to put our energy, our resources, and our best minds behind that plan.

Today, we have a strategic plan. We have set a goal of raising our investment in R&D to 10% of our budget. We are implementing acquisition reform that will help us get better products and systems. And we are defining revolutionary new programs that will test the skill and creativity of our people and our organization. I am confident that we will pass that test and that we will continue to give this country the wherewithal to maintain global information superiority.

This information superiority is the key element of Joint Vision 2010 -- the blueprint for future US dominance of the battlefield. Under JV 2010, space systems and new dissemination tools will put real time information directly into the hands of the warfighter. General Fogleman predicted that “someday soon, we will be able to detect, track, target, and kill anything of significance in the battle space in near real time.” Space-based information superiority will turn that prediction into a reality.

We are also working on ways to reengineer our security system and reduce the classification of our product. This will open up new opportunities, attract new customers, and enable us to pursue new applications. Already, much of our data is available at the secret level for use by the warfighter -- this has been a major factor in the military's revolution in information dominance.

Our efforts in security reform enable me, tonight, to pay tribute to Special Projects and their government and contractor associates who quietly made such a great contribution to our national security. For a period of almost 37 years, they have operated without public or even family knowledge of their achievements. The SP family worked together with a degree of trust and harmony seldom seen in any group. The mission always came first, before organizational, personal, and company gain.

There are many stories of achievement and personal sacrifice behind SP. They often had to overcome almost insurmountable technological and logistical odds. We still can't tell all of the stories or give all of the public credit that these people deserve. Although we no longer conduct satellite reconnaissance in a completely closed environment, our technology, our methodology and a good deal of our operations and locations must remain classified.

I can tell you that the unprecedented contributions of SP have been recognized at the highest levels of our government. On behalf of the Director of Central Intelligence, it is now my honor to present General Larned and the people of SP with a Meritorious Unit Citation for their outstanding service to the NRO, the Intelligence Community, and the United States of America. Rick, would you please step forward while I read the citation:

The Office of Special Projects, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force distinguished itself by especially meritorious service for the 36 year period from 1961 to 1997. As the Air Force component of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Special Projects' men and women pioneered and revolutionized space technology, streamlined acquisition and operated reconnaissance satellites which played a critical role in the security of our nation. During the Cold War, these systems provided worldwide intelligence, monitored arms control treaties, and preserved peace by continually observing and reporting on threats capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the mainland of the United States. In armed conflict, these systems provided information essential to saving the lives of our military forces and those of our allies. As these operations were highly classified, the men and women assigned to this organization conducted these activities without acknowledgement of their critically important mission. The exceptionally superior achievements of the Office of Special Projects reflect great credit upon its individual members and the Intelligence Community.

I would like to congratulate all the people of SP on this well-deserved award. I thank you all and I wish you happy holidays and a wonderful New Year.