THE NRO-PREPARING FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
Mr. Eric Sundberg
Special Assistant for Technology to the director of the Advanced Systems & Technology Directorate, National Reconnaissance Office
April 1, 1998
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is in the midst of large scale changes in response to the end of the Cold War. Following the installment of its new director, Keith Hall, in 1996, the NRO undertook a major internal review and addressed fundamental questions about its role in the 21st Century. Mr. Hall convened a panel of luminaries, the Jeremiah Panel, to ask "should we keep the NRO?" in light of the momentous shifts that have reshaped America's security environment.
The panel concluded that there will continue to be a need for gaining access to information that other countries are not willing to provide. Indeed, there may be even more of a need for the NRO today, the Jeremiah Panel concluded, since our foreign opposition has diversified. The old threat was relatively simple to identify: the Soviet Union and its client states. Today, any number of rogue nations and transnational dangers can threaten the United States. Rather than tracking the ponderous Soviet threat, the NRO needs to develop capabilities to seek out potential new threats, such as biological weapons, which have minimal production requirements and can be delivered across a wide area by a single person.
Further justifying the need for the NRO, the panel noted that the NRO is uniquely positioned to provide timely, unobtrusive, global access. NRO satellites can access any location within six hours. And, they do so without violating any nation's territory or airspace. These capabilities serve two primary customers: the intelligence community and the Pentagon. Both customers are acutely aware of the value of the services that the NRO provides. For the Pentagon, this was particularly reinforced by the Gulf War where the basis for the US victory was laid well before the two armies actually met. Both the Pentagon and the intelligence community would have to internalize the capabilities that the NRO provides today were the NRO to be disbanded at a significant additional cost to the taxpayer.
However, the panel did suggest a change in emphasis for the NRO toward cutting edge research and development (R & D). Following its pioneering efforts in the 1960s, the NRO has more recently tended toward an evolutionary approach to R&D rather than a revolutionary approach. The Jeremiah panel suggested that this needed to change. Accordingly, the NRO added a fourth directorate explicitly responsible for revolutionizing the NRO technology program. Whereas previously it had been divided into signal intelligence (SIGINT), image intelligence (IMINT), and communications directorate, now R&D would have its own centralized directorate to focus and coordinate the NRO's efforts in this regard.
This renewed emphasis on R&D comes at a vital time for the NRO. Currently, the NRO receives over a petabyte (1015 bytes) of data each week, enough to fill over one million CD-ROMs. From that enormous database, the NRO must distill down the key pieces of information to be passed on to soldiers and diplomats in the field (who are often working with slow modems, capable of handling tens of kilobits per second). Similarly, while small computer processors are quite advanced, chips such as the Pentium II and the Motorola G3 are not radiation hardened and thus have problems in many satellite applications. Thus, while commercial information technologies are both advanced and rapidly improving, the NRO simply requires capabilities that are beyond the leading edge of that sector. Thus, it must develop its own.
Accordingly, the NRO has revised its vision and mission statements as follows:
* Vision Statement: "Freedom's Sentinel in Space: One Team, Revolutionizing Global Reconnaissance"
* Mission Statement: "Enable U.S. global information superiority, during peace through war. The NRO is responsible for the unique and innovative technology, large scale systems engineering, development and acquisition, and operation of space reconnaissance systems and related intelligence activities needed to support global information superiority."
Both of these emphasize a renewed interest by the NRO in maintaining a revolutionary perspective toward using technology in reconnaissance. This emphasis also shows up in budgeting priorities. Over the past eighteen months the allocation to R&D has risen from 4 to 8 percent of the total budget. By next year, NRO plans to increase that further to10 percent. Additionally, the NRO has funded its "Director's Innovation Initiative" with some $25 million per year. This provides large-scale grants to private (and potentially academic) researchers doing reconnaissance related work on the basis of a streamlined application procedureat heart, a three page proposal. This program has been extremely successful, generating over 700 proposals this year alone.
Throughout the NRO's R&D efforts, the emphasis is on a willingness to take on high risk projects. The NRO recognized that to break out of the evolutionary R&D mode would require some fundamental rethinking about all aspects of satellite designs. Getting to that point will require taking some R&D risks. In this regard, the NRO has begun to regard itself as investment bankers, as venture capitalists, in the hopes that both the high risk tolerance and the broadened set of technology contributors will lead to truly revolutionary advances.
There are a few areas where the NRO needs to expand its efforts. First is openness. For an organization whose very existence was not publicly acknowledged until a few years ago, this a challenge. But it is one that must be met. Second, technology infusion is also a concern. Third, outreach and collaboration must be priorities. This refers to both outreach to other government agencies (NASA, the Naval Research Labs, the Air Force, etc.), but also increasingly to the private sector and to academia. These are sources for new technologies that will enable the NRO to maintain cutting edge technologies while at the same time minimizing wasteful overlap of research programs. Pursuant to this, the NRO will soon hold its sixth annual "NRO Technology Forum and EXPO" open to those in the private sector with appropriate clearances. The NRO also has maintained a number of personnel exchange programs to help in this regard.
Looking to the 21st century, the NRO's strives to provide "tailored information, on demand, worldwide." Building satellites has moved from being an art, through being good science, to now simply being a matter of good engineering. Thus, industry is quite competitive with the NRO in many areas of building satellites. NRO's value-added then becomes converting the large amounts of data (recall, a million CD-ROMs per week) into "tailored information". This phrase captures both the increased emphasis on a customer orientation (tailored to his/her needs) and to the importance of processing and synthesizing the results of the reconnaissance (information, not data). To ensure that it does this, the NRO will support development of superior reconnaissance technologies as it focuses on addressing its customers' needs in an evolving international environment.
Mr. Eric Sundberg has worked for the NRO in various capacities for 25 years and retired from the US Air Force as a Colonel last summer. His current title is "Special Assistant for Technology to the Director of the Advanced Systems & Technology Directorate, National Reconnaissance Office."
Christopher P. Twomey - Rapporteur
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