Director Scolese recently sat down with WTOP National Security Correspondent JJ Green for his podcast “Target USA.” Released yesterday, Dr. Scolese's interview is the first current discussion between one of the 18 Intelligence Community leaders and Mr. Green. The conversation spans NRO's 60 year history and is available here.
Diving right in, Green asked Dr. Scolese about an idea that was mentioned to him by a previous NRO director, persistence of vision. This is the ability to have as close to constant updated information available when looking from above, whether it is a natural disaster or a battlefield, and provide that information where it is needed most.
“One of your predecessors some years ago, perhaps more than a decade ago, talked to me about something called persistence of vision, when it comes to the U.S.’ ability to look at the Earth from space. It was, at the time, a target, or something officials had hoped the NRO or the Intelligence Community would achieve at some point. Has that been achieved?”
Director Scolese responded that the NRO is in the process of “doing exactly that.” He elaborated that the NRO is closer to this target than it was five years ago, in part by “…mixing the orbits—low earth, and geosynchronous orbits—we are starting to get the point of having that persistence.”
The need for this persistence of vision comes at a time when the United States is facing big threats in and from space. When asked about the threats, Dr. Scolese said space is a “congested and contested environment” and that Russia and China are becoming more aggressive. When asked to elaborate, Dr. Scolese went on to discuss how both of these adversaries have developed weapons capable of damaging or hindering U.S. satellites and capabilities.
Green asked why Russia and China were acting in such an aggressive manner and Dr. Scolese put it very simply, “they know we have very capable systems up there [in space].” According to the director, Russia and China want to prove their prowess in space and be viewed as technological leaders, much in the same way the U.S. is viewed.
These threats to U.S. objectives in space do not have the U.S. sitting idly by, watching. The U.S. is developing countermeasures to harden our satellites and NRO is working closely with partners such as Space Force and Space Command on tactics for a response if attacked. When asked what keeps him up at night, Director Scolese spoke to the threats by adversaries that seek to take away our advantage in space.
The biggest challenges the NRO faces, according to Dr. Scolese, are staying technologically ahead of those who want to catch up to the U.S. in space and developing systems more resistant and capable of surviving in the contested space environment. The director, in particular, is focused on ensuring the NRO team has the tools and resources to help everyone get their job done and achieve their objectives against these complex challenges.
This is consistent with Dr. Scolese’s vision moving forward—to “stay the world leader in overhead intelligence, to stay technologically ahead in space, and continually develop a system that supports national leadership all the way down the person in the field that needs the data.”
Dr. Scolese said the NRO is achieving this vision by developing an infrastructure that is made up of different satellites—large and small—to meet the “physics of the problem,” populating multiple orbits around the Earth to achieve persistence, and utilizing a robust commercial sector to take advantage of their capabilities.
Noting the vast coverage mapped by commercial partners every day for the NRO, Dr. Scolese emphasized the importance of the partnership and the capabilities the commercial sector provides. Green asked about the potential security issues that may arise with such a relationship.
“It is a challenge for everyone,” Dr. Scolese told Green.
He went on to discuss that the NRO works closely with suppliers to ensure they have latest security measures, are protecting intellectual property, and that by using the NRO’s rigorous supply chain process, helps avoid flaws in the systems the NRO uses.
“A thorough test program is absolutely critical to ensuring not only the security of the system, but also the operability of the system,” he said.
At the end of the interview Green reminisced about the NRO time capsule, sealed in 2001. He asked Dr. Scolese if he knew when it will be opened or what was inside. Director Scolese light-heartedly admitted he does not know what is inside but that time capsules show us what we were thinking about 20 years ago, “some of it will be the same, some will look very different in today’s world.”
The NRO time capsule will not be opened until 2061, on the 100th anniversary of the NRO.
Listen to the NRO’s podcast, “The Dish” and other Partner Podcasts here.