Problem Solvers at the NRO

July 1, 2011

The National Reconnaissance Office—for decades, a shadowy organization nearly synonymous with “top secret”—is reaching out to the military services, in an effort to let the fighting forces know what the NRO’s capabilities are and how it can help the military accomplish its missions.

“It’s remarkable how many people don’t know what we can do,” said Bruce A. Carlson, NRO director. The retired Air Force four-star general said even he, as former head of Air Force Materiel Command, was not fully “familiar with those capabilities.”

The NRO gathers intelligence through satellites—it has long been out of the aerial reconnaissance business—and processes the data through various other filters to derive a multidimensional, multispectral picture of areas of interest. The organization also invests in science and technology, developing new sensors, computer algorithms, satellites, and systems to meet the nation’s need for raw information. Other elements of the national Intelligence Community do the analysis.

An NRO payload is launched aboard a Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Carlson is seeking a balance between large, “battleship” satellites and small, nearly disposable ones. (Photo by United Launch Alliance)

Red Dot

It’s not Carlson’s aim to bring the NRO further into the open, but he does have representatives dispersed around the world in regional operations centers, attending “every meeting that they can possibly be in,” to listen and, when possible, say, “Hey, we can help you on that.”

Carlson himself visits overseas theaters—he was in Afghanistan in early spring—to let the senior leaders know his organization and its assets are available to them. He follows up these meetings by sending deputies to put those commitments into practice.

In Afghanistan, for instance, “today’s expectation is that everyone who walks out of the tent into combat will have the absolute latest intelligence,” Carlson asserted. “Not something that’s eight hours or 10 hours old, but the latest intelligence.”

The NRO does “two things really well,” Carlson said in an interview with Air Force Magazine in his Chantilly, Va., office. One is to design, build, and operate satellites. The other is to use its considerable technical talent to “solve really tough problems.”

Case in point: the struggle to locate improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the bane of US ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have a system called ‘Red Dot,’” Carlson said, which “tells people in Humvees or MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles] where there’s a possible IED ahead. And that takes an incredible amount of integration of signals and imaging” and all-source inputs in order to put—literally—a red dot on a computer display in a vehicle “that says, ‘Look around the next corner,’ or ‘Avoid this area.’ “

Another capability NRO provides to the Afghanistan theater is something called CEGS, for Communications intelligence External Geofusion System. It integrates “things that we listen to, and the pictures we take,” Carlson said.

The system fuses “space with airborne and terrestrial sensors,” and it’s a project in which the NRO is closely coordinated with the National Security Agency. By combining aerial imagery with a signals intelligence pickup—say, a push-to-talk radio transmission—the ability to locate a target “gets a lot better,” Carlson noted. He could not elaborate further due to classification.

Bruce Carlson, NRO director, says the office developed a system called Red Dot to notify ground forces about possible IEDs. (USAF photo by Daniel Rohan)

An Evolving Mission

The NRO provides many custom-built or “niche” capabilities for all the services in theater, he added, in activities ranging from full combat to logistics and communications. At any given time, about 60 NRO personnel are in Afghanistan, rendering intel aid.

Processing data—fusing geolocation with movement and signals information, for instance—makes the raw information provided to users much more potent than it was in years past, Carlson said, and the fusion makes it possible to get much more out of existing assets. He noted that the NRO has done a good job getting satellites to work years longer than they were designed to—some being “old enough to vote”—but the “ones and zeros [that they transmit] haven’t changed.” By manipulating those data, satellites built for one purpose are being routinely used to supply other kinds of information.

“We’ve been able to increase the accuracy and timeliness [of] information significantly,” he said.

By good luck, sometimes Carlson’s liaison people are in the right place at the right time. He had an officer dispatched to the US 7th Fleet in Japan when the massive Sendai earthquake and tsunami hit. The connection allowed the NRO to supply the Navy and Japan with “relevant information to help them deal with this incredible disaster.”

Carlson said he’s “not satisfied with the degree of our connectivity with the services,” and has put the NRO to work to try to anticipate the services’ needs and be ready with solutions. The Air Force is transforming itself “from …what was a fighter and airlift force” to one dominated by remotely piloted aircraft, he observed.

“It’s a different force than it was five years ago, so I’ve got to change my support to them. And so we’ll always be evolving, and my goal is to create an organization that can evolve quicker than it has in the past.”

In Guam, for example, the NRO is anticipating a growing pace of Global Hawk operations, and is working to establish “the links necessary to support the missions they’re going to be performing.” Moreover, when USAF prepares to fly a Global Hawk, “you’re going to want to have some pretty good intelligence information before you take off, or during the trip,” to get the greatest value out of the mission.

Another of Carlson’s goals is to get NRO’s spending for science and technology back up to what he called the “traditional level” of around eight percent of the organization’s budget. When he arrived at the NRO two years ago, the level for S&T had fallen to 5.7 percent of the budget, but he’s been able to grow it by half a percent each year, and “we are on track” to achieve the eight percent figure, he said.

The operation is getting much more efficient, he observed.

“We’re in the middle of the most aggressive launch campaign … of the last 25 years,” and doing it with “about half the infrastructure [and] half the people … they had” the last time the NRO was putting assets into space at this rate.

The NRO seeks to pursue technology that is “complementary” and not duplicative of efforts under way with Air Force and Navy agencies, such as the Air Force Research Lab and the Naval Research Lab, and NASA, Carlson noted.

“If there is something that both of us are working on, … we divide it up in a way that one plus one doesn’t equal two; one plus one equals three.” However, “we are not completely integrated. I don’t want that. What I want to do is highlight a few places where we can make a difference and focus on those things.”

Asked what technologies NRO is most interested in pursuing, Carlson said he needs solar power cells that are more efficient and easier to produce. Constant investment in new sensors is also a given.

“We hope that there are some breakthroughs in space transportation,” he said. “We’re not investing enough money in that right now. … I don’t have the kind of money to do that, … but I’d like to see rockets that are a lot less expensive and that can be produced more quickly.”

The reconnaissance office is also keen on miniaturization because it can lead to reduced launch costs. Nowadays, NRO frequently launches two satellites on one rocket, “but if I could get six or eight, that alone would decrease the cost of launch.”

An NRO satellite is launched from Vandenberg in April. (NRO photo)

That said, Carlson is not on the bandwagon for “smallsats”; less capable but less costly and more easily replaced satellites.

“We build satellites to requirements,” he said. Some are large and some very small. The latter are often used to test out nascent technologies.

Prioritizing Intelligence

Sometimes, however, “you have to have a large aperture,” Carlson said, whether for radar or an optical instrument, “just to get the kind of signal-to-noise ratio that you need. If you’re going to see something from a good long way away, you have to have a large antenna,” and that drives the need for large satellites.

Operational smallsats have their place, too, but generally, they have to be closer to the Earth, he pointed out. At low altitudes, though, “you’re in a more strenuous or severe environment, and as a result, they just don’t last as long.” Moreover, small satellites, by virtue of being more tightly packaged, create other risks: Components can vibrate or give off heat in ways that may affect adjacent elements.

There needs to be a balance between the big battleship satellites and the small, nearly disposable ones, he noted.

All these considerations are part of trade studies undertaken when a satellite is in the conceptual stage.

“We know how to do that,” Carlson said. “We’re doing it right now, with the Senate Intelligence Committee, and we’re working on an architecture that they want us to evaluate, and we’re showing them what the trades will be.”

Nevertheless, NRO is always looking for technologies that will make satellites “more produceable or more affordable” or “more effective or more powerful. And when we can fund those niche technologies, we go after them in a big way.”

While the NRO has interest in near-space platforms—aerostats or long-endurance robotic aircraft that can be parked at high altitude—Carlson said other agencies are pursuing that technology, and NRO doesn’t want to be duplicative. However, he’s sure that NRO sensors will be involved, should near-space vehicles be fielded.

“I certainly see us in that business being a partner,” he said. “We have the kind of sensors that can do great things” for whoever pursues the technology. “In fact, we’re part of the … stuff that’s ongoing now; we’re very much integrated into it.”

Senior Pentagon leaders have asserted that so much intelligence is being collected now that only a small fraction can be analyzed and acted on in a timely fashion. Carlson said NRO is “not in the analysis business,” but added that his agency recognizes the problem and is doing something about it.

An artist’s conception of an imaging intelligence satellite on orbit. The NRO is actively working to better filter out “noise” to concentrate on actionable intelligence. (Illustration by Erik Simonsen)

“There are some solutions,” he said. “One is called preprocessing: sorting out the noise from the signal. Because when you collect that much stuff—whether it’s in the [electro-optical] band, the [infrared] band, [or] electronic band, … some of it is just noise.” The NRO is actively working to better “filter” those products.

“Then, when you decide what you’re going to process, how do you prioritize it? And you can do a lot of this today with machines.” Finally, he said, the processing can be refined even further. “We can just do a lot more with the ones and zeros than we ever could before. That is continuing to evolve at a faster and faster rate.” Putting raw data through those three steps is something he wants to do “before I hand the data off to the organization that’s going to analyze it.” That will ensure that the first thing the analysts get “is the thing they want the most.”