NRO Maintains Nation’s Intel Satellite Edge

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2011 — The Nation­al Recon­nais­sance Office is 50 years old this month, but its mis­sion of design­ing, build­ing, launch­ing and main­tain­ing America’s intel­li­gence satel­lites is always future focused, its chief said yes­ter­day.

Bruce A. Carl­son, a retired Air Force gen­er­al and NRO’s direc­tor, told defense reporters here the office’s cur­rent mis­sions range from iden­ti­fy­ing road­side bombs in Afghanistan to track­ing activ­i­ties in Chi­na and North Korea.

The Nation­al Recon­nais­sance Office has launched six satel­lites in sev­en months, “the best we’ve done in about 25 years,” the direc­tor said.

As recent­ly as two years ago, more than 30 per­cent of the organization’s pro­grams were rat­ed yel­low or red for improp­er per­for­mance. All the NRO’s major sys­tem acqui­si­tion pro­grams are now in the green — deliv­er­ing on sched­ule, on con­tract and on price, Carl­son said.

Carl­son said NRO’s mis­sion is get­ting more chal­leng­ing because space is becom­ing increas­ing­ly con­gest­ed where the satel­lites work.

“Oth­er coun­tries are launch­ing a lot of stuff, and it’s becom­ing more com­pet­i­tive,” he said. “We all have to oper­ate in the same space.”

And it’s no secret the Chi­nese are becom­ing more active in space, the direc­tor added. “That con­cerns us because we’re not absolute­ly sure of their intent,” he said.

NRO and Air Force Space Com­mand have a joint space pro­tec­tion pro­gram, Carl­son said, which is the “ace in the hole” should “some­body try to do some­thing.”

“We also use the space pro­tec­tion pro­gram to work around the con­ges­tion prob­lem … make sure we don’t run into some­thing else up there,” he said.

Chi­na and Rus­sia both con­tend with the Unit­ed States for room in space, Carl­son said.

In satel­lite sur­veil­lance as with night fight­ing, deep strike capa­bil­i­ties and spe­cial oper­a­tions exper­tise, “they have to focus on our strengths,” the direc­tor said.

Chi­na and Rus­sia don’t try to com­pete with U.S. capa­bil­i­ties, but to counter them, Carl­son not­ed. “That’s why we have a space pro­tec­tion pro­gram,” he said.

Chi­na is a focus for his organization’s sur­veil­lance efforts, as is North Korea, Carl­son said.

“I remain con­cerned about [China’s] intent and exact­ly what it is that I do not know,” he said.

North Korea also works “real­ly hard to deceive us,” Carl­son not­ed. “We work real­ly hard to make sure we don’t let them deceive us. So it’s sort of a cat-and-mouse game. It’s very seri­ous for us.”

The NRO’s three main lines of busi­ness are imag­ing, sig­nals col­lec­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the direc­tor said. The sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, or devel­op­men­tal and demon­stra­tion pro­gram, under­lies all three, he added.

“We have a very active pro­gram to do our own tech­nol­o­gy,” Carl­son said. “We’re the only orga­ni­za­tion in the gov­ern­ment that does space recon­nais­sance … and that takes some unique tech­nolo­gies.”

NRO part­ners with the Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ries and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in devel­op­ing new capa­bil­i­ties, but some 60 per­cent of the equip­ment on the six recent­ly launched satel­lites was devel­oped in-house, he said.

Sev­er­al oth­er small satel­lites — less than about 1,000 pounds — are now in orbit demon­strat­ing new tech­nolo­gies that NRO will roll into its exist­ing sur­veil­lance sys­tems, the direc­tor said.

For imag­ing recon­nais­sance, the NRO seeks to exam­ine as many parts of the spec­trum with as many instru­ments as pos­si­ble, he said.

The goal is to “do sens­ing … in the day­time, at night, in bad weath­er, good weath­er … and sand­storms,” he said.

Some of the sig­nals col­lec­tion satel­lites are “remark­ably old,” he said.

“Those satel­lites were designed to col­lect Sovi­et long-haul com­mu­ni­ca­tions that dealt with the Cold War,” he said. “Now they’re col­lect­ing phone calls or push-to-talk radio sig­nals out of the war zone.”

NRO uses its com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites to relay image or sig­nals data around the world and down to the ground for pro­cess­ing, then shunt the results back to where they’re need­ed, Carl­son said.

“Pro­cess­ing takes a lot of ener­gy and [com­put­er] capac­i­ty,” he said. “We’ve got to do that on the ground; we can’t afford to do it in space.”

NRO’s abil­i­ty to fuse var­i­ous streams of intel­li­gence data — includ­ing image, sig­nals and geolo­ca­tion — into a sin­gle, usable result has increased by an order of mag­ni­tude, but is five orders of mag­ni­tude below where it needs to be, Carl­son said.

“It’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to take a pic­ture some­place and fuse it with sig­nals intel­li­gence, that you might have a mil­lion pieces of, and sort that all out and geolo­cate it rapid­ly,” he said. “But in many cas­es we’re able to do that … in min­utes or less.”

One promis­ing exam­ple of fusion is the “red dot” sys­tem, Carl­son said, which pin­points the sig­nals emit­ted by road­side bombs set for elec­tron­ic det­o­na­tion.

“We do a lot of work to make sure that we know what those sig­nals are, where they’re com­ing from, and geolo­cate them,” he said.

That data gen­er­ates a red dot on dis­plays in mil­i­tary vehi­cles or com­mand posts to show high prob­a­bil­i­ty of an explo­sive, he added.

“I can’t tell you exact­ly how we do that, but it’s a pret­ty clever set of tech­nolo­gies,” the direc­tor said. “What it has meant is that, even though we still have an unac­cept­able loss from [road­side bombs], we are catch­ing a lot of them before they’re det­o­nat­ed.”

The sys­tem has been in place for approx­i­mate­ly six months and has been about 80 per­cent effec­tive, he added.

NRO was also “instru­men­tal” to the NATO oper­a­tion in Libya, ensur­ing the air cam­paign was suc­cess­ful, Carl­son said.

The NRO feeds data to mil­i­tary com­man­ders, he said, but it is also a key strate­gic asset, serv­ing the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency and Nation­al Geospa­tial-Intel­li­gence Agency.

There will always be com­pe­ti­tion between, for exam­ple, the infor­ma­tion an ana­lyst wants to assess for­eign weapon sys­tems and a com­bat commander’s need to know where and how many cell phones are oper­at­ing in a par­tic­u­lar ene­my area, the direc­tor not­ed.

Whether iden­ti­fy­ing insur­gent behav­ior pat­terns or focus­ing on larg­er nation­al secu­ri­ty ques­tions, Carl­son said, “My job is to … get the most out of a sen­sor.”

There are only so many satel­lites in orbit, so NRO has an inclu­sive and respon­sive process to allo­cate its 24-hour capa­bil­i­ties, he said.

“What that allows us to do is very rapid­ly … world­wide and through­out our archi­tec­ture, tune those sys­tems,” he said.

An exam­ple is an air­craft bailout requir­ing a search-and-res­cue effort, he said.

“We can, with­in a mat­ter of sec­onds, turn an incred­i­ble num­ber of our sen­sors on a spe­cif­ic area,” he added.

Carl­son said dur­ing NRO’s next 50 years, the chal­lenges are to do what it now does even bet­ter, and to devel­op more in-space capa­bil­i­ty.

“We know what we have to do — we have to pro­vide the best, inte­grat­ed intel­li­gence in the world,” he said. “Now, [we have to] do it faster and cheap­er.”

Space satel­lites have always focused down­ward, and now need to be able to look around and up as well, he said.

“Because space is more con­gest­ed and more con­test­ed and more com­pet­i­tive … we’ve got to build sys­tems that con­tin­ue to be much more adapt­able,” he said. “Space recon­nais­sance — that’s my job.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)