News | Dec. 6, 2021

NRO director: Innovation is the key to America’s advantage in space

By Chris Scolese

The National Reconnaissance Office has spent six decades developing the best space-based intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems in the world. These systems are a critical source of information for policymakers, analysts and the military. They are used to understand the intentions of those who wish to do us harm, as well as to support disaster recovery and address climate change.

Our nation’s advantage in space was built and maintained through innovation, the hallmark of the NRO. Innovation is enabled by an environment that encourages creativity, understands and is willing to take risk, empowers its workforce, and stays aware of progress being made by others. It has defined our past and will continue to be a beacon for our future.

In a relatively short period of time, the NRO went from small cameras that dropped film buckets from the sky to be snagged midair by an aircraft, to electro-optical systems 150 miles above the Earth that beamed data directly to the ground. More recently, we put 16 payloads on orbit in the span of 18 months, despite a global pandemic. The goal has been to provide information faster in a more usable form that allows people to focus on higher-level tasks, and to expand capabilities that will enable more precise information.

Today, we have a new challenge. We must protect our systems from those seeking to deny our ability to operate in space. Others have noticed the advantage space provides the United States and are attempting to catch up. We must provide a more resilient capability able to adapt to faults, attacks or means of denial. We have to be smarter, innovate faster and deliver capability on orbit more quickly — and we must continue to stay ahead technologically.

Developing new technologies, using new techniques, then combining those techniques and technologies to develop capabilities and acquisition strategies to solve the most difficult ISR problems from space is what we do better than anyone in the world.

But to stay ahead of our adversaries, we can’t do it alone. It means relying on our partners — and not just traditional partners. We must foster new and nontraditional ones too. The calculus must be that we are infinitely better together than we are on our own.

Together, we must deliver an architecture that is more resilient and mission-focused — with an increasingly diverse constellation of satellites, greater responsiveness, more predictable coverage and more dynamic tasking. Our architecture must rely on NRO-developed systems as well as the highly capable commercial and international systems being deployed. Innovation knows no boundaries and is not inherent in any one institution. Together, we can make incredible advances.

We must also apply new technologies and partnerships to our ground systems so we can support and manage massive amounts of data from overhead, integrate even more spacecraft, improve decision-making and be resilient to cyberattacks.

We must continue the evolution of our acquisition process. The NRO is known across government for our ability to reduce traditionally lengthy development cycles. In fact, two programs we have on orbit right now went from concept to orbit in less than three years. Shorter timelines must be the norm, not the exception, across the national security space enterprise.

We must invest in developments and technologies that will enable us to bring more robust capability to our users faster and at lower cost. Examples of areas where we need advances include improved algorithms for artificial intelligence and machine learning, improved low-power computer systems for spacecraft, and communication systems immune to disruption. We must embrace digital engineering across our supply chain to enable even faster development, and we must invest in new technologies such as quantum computing, sensing and communication.

We also need a reliable and trusted supply chain. The global pandemic has caused disruption that we can’t allow to happen again. Staying ahead of our adversaries is only possible if we have the parts to build the systems that provide unrivaled situational awareness in space. We just can’t do it without a dependable supply chain.

Finally, we must maintain a strong, capable and empowered workforce to create the systems that will allow us to keep the peace. I know today’s workforce at the NRO is up to the task. I am also confident our future workforce will continue our legacy as the world leader in space-based ISR.

As a nation, we have never been as reliant on space as we are today. Our modern way of life — our economy, our military and our national security — hinge upon access to and freedom to operate in space.

The NRO’s 60-year legacy of innovation and partnership gives us confidence in our nation’s ability to face today’s period of profound change in the space domain. Our collective success advancing technology and delivering capabilities faster will be vital to maintaining America’s intelligence advantage in space, not just today, but for the next 60 years and beyond.

Chris Scolese is the director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

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