Fearless Pursuit of Innovation

Q&A with Dr. Chris Scolese, Director, National Reconnaissance Office


As the NRO Director during a time of rapid technological change, how do you foster the flexibility needed to keep up with evolving mission requirements? 

For nearly 60 years, the NRO has developed, acquired, launched and operated our nation’s spy satellites – satellites that collect both GEOINT and SIGINT to support a wide variety of customers and intelligence requirements. It’s an exciting mission—developing, acquiring, launching, and operating the world’s most advanced space-based intelligence collection systems in the world. And, no one does it better than the men and women of the NRO. 

I believe there are three key attributes that contribute to NRO’s success. We’re small, flat, and streamlined, which enables us to make decisions quickly and adapt to change. And, our end-to-end mission enables us to make improvements at every stage of an acquisition—from research and development through system acquisition, launch, and operations. Third, we are constantly developing and evaluating new capabilities, technologies, and partnerships. 

I would also say that our culture of innovation and risk tolerance play an important role, enabling us to achieve innovative breakthroughs within relevant timelines that are needed to maintain our competitive edge. 

The foundation of NRO’s success continues to be its people. Therefore, we provide the resources and opportunities necessary to enable our team at NRO to thrive. Throughout NRO’s history, our vibrant and exceptional workforce has achieved an amazing record of mission success. 

Moving forward, we can and must do even more to meet the future mission demands of complex threat environments. First and foremost, we’ll ensure that the NRO continues to meet our commitment to the nation in developing, delivering, and operating the world’s most advanced space intelligence collection systems and capabilities to support the mission performance needs and intelligence priorities of policymakers, the Intelligence Community, and the Department of Defense. 

But beyond that, we’re focused on three strategic areas that guide our approach. First, we must pursue innovative approaches to rapidly infuse advanced technologies into our space and ground systems, which will enable us to stay ahead of our adversaries. Second, we must continue to deliver advanced systems and capabilities. And third, we must continue to evolve existing and emerging partnerships to strengthen our national security space posture. Because let’s face it, space superiority is not an entitlement. It’s something we must aggressively earn every day. There’s no room for complacency. We must fearlessly pursue innovative new ideas with courageous impatience. By acting on these three strategic focus areas, I have absolute confidence that we’ll preserve our security interests in space to ensure America and our Allies remain secure and strong. 

With the transition of the EnhancedView program from NGA to NRO two years ago, the roles and responsibilities of each agency for acquiring commercial imagery were realigned. Now that some time has passed, has the transition been successful? How would you characterize that current partnership between NRO and NGA? 

The transition of the EnhancedView contract was a smooth one with no gap in mission support, which was due to the close partnership between the NRO and NGA. While the contract transition was a major accomplishment for us, it was sort of a non-event for the user community—which is exactly what we planned and wanted to see happen. More recently, we transitioned the Planet subscription service contract from NGA, and it too transitioned with no break in mission support. Again, the fact that both of these major commercial imagery operational contracts transitioned seamlessly is a testament to the partnership between our two agencies.

More generally, we are working with the community to ensure that existing and emerging GEOINT requirements are articulated by our customers, validated by NGA as the GEOINT Functional Manager, and satisfied by NRO’s acquisition strategy, be it through commercial or national means. We are also working together to ensure that commercial capabilities are fully integrated into the NRO enterprise architecture as this will ensure greater operational synergies. 

NRO has awarded multiple study contracts to companies in the lead up to acquisition contracts expected later this year. How important is commercial imagery to the overall NRO mission? 

Commercial imagery is an integral part of the current GEOINT architecture and an important critical component of our future architecture. Our customers’ requirements are changing—they need both high resolution and rapid revisit; they need greater persistence; they need spectral diversity; etc. Commercial imagery can help satisfy these diverse needs. Moreover, the integration of commercial imagery capabilities and sources into the national overhead enterprise creates opportunities for acquisition efficiencies and operational synergies. Ultimately, this means delivery of better, faster geospatial intelligence to our customers via a more capable, integrated, resilient and affordable architecture. 

For these reasons, the NRO’s approach to commercial imagery—and commercial products and services in general—is best characterized as ’buy what we can; build only what we must.’ It’s based on fair and open competition, meaning we recognize that, by its nature, commercial imagery is unclassified, and many providers, especially emerging ones, do not have clearances. This is a changing paradigm for the NRO, but we have truly embraced the value of commercial imagery. As we prepare for the next generation of commercial imagery contracts, the NRO has been diligent about seeking to better understand the scope of both existing and emerging commercial imagery providers and their ability to satisfy U.S. government requirements today and into the future. The GEOINT Functional Manager’s requirements, our market studies, and the recent study contracts will all help inform our plans for commercial imagery procurements by late 2020. 

What are some developments NRO is working on currently that most excite you? 

It’s definitely an exciting time to be at the NRO, and our future has never been brighter! One area I am especially excited about is the rapid infusion of advanced technologies into our space and ground systems. This is critical for two reasons. First, our competitors are becoming increasingly capable and are spending a lot of time and resources to make space a contested environment, so we must continue the evolution of our future space systems and capabilities to outpace today’s threats while meeting or exceeding the performance needs and dynamic execution requirements of our customers. Second, the rapid pace of technology refresh and innovation means we need to constantly look for ways to leverage the best technological advancements coming out of academia, industry, and our own research and development efforts. 

Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about. We’re now leveraging an innovative NRO demonstration satellite program that went from concept to launch in less than two-and-a-half years. This is significant because it illustrates how quickly we can go from identifying a user need to delivering the capability required to meet that need. This program demonstrates a variety of new capabilities designed to accelerate the delivery of data to our user community by featuring an array of sophisticated data processing technologies designed to achieve the rapid collection and processing of information in space and the direct delivery of unclassified data to warfighters in theater. The NRO is also pioneering research to enable our evolving collection capabilities to drive down sensor-to-shooter timelines—closing the gap between data collection and operational decision-making. And, it’s also enabling us to meet DoD’s dynamic execution requirements against unpredictable, small, fleeting, and quiet targets. All of these advancements will ensure our warfighters stay ahead of the growing scope of multi-domain threats facing the nation. 

Another area where we’re achieving progress in terms of rapid tech infusion is innovative and cost-effective investments in small satellite technology demonstrations. This is really exciting because it provides a rapid, risk-tolerant, and cost-effective means to develop and evaluate new capabilities in space and get them into operations quickly. One recent example of this was the launch of two IMPACT CubeSats in November 2019 that carried 14 technology demonstrations, four of which were part of our new Greenlighting program. This program demonstrates the on-orbit performance and space survivability of new technologies developed by non-traditional commercial partners that might not be originally developed for space applications but show promise for use in that environment. For example, one of the first Greenlighting experiments delivered was a quarter-sized processor used in the oil and gas industry. Even though the environments in the space industry and the oil and gas industry are different, both are very harsh on micro-electronic components. With Greenlighting, we were able to quickly take a component developed for an entirely different industry and evaluate it for use in space. These types of technology demonstrations are vital to helping us achieve the rapid tech infusion we’re looking for to preserve our strategic advantage in space. 

Given the stiff competition from the commercial world for talent, what would you say to the young and future professionals out there about pursuing a career with the NRO? 

I’m extremely proud of the critical work performed by our talented people. We continue to attract the best people from across the IC, uniformed services, academia, and industry. NRO’s truly vibrant and exceptional workforce is comprised of approximately one-third CIA, one-third military, and we’re moving toward one-third NRO DoD civilians, which we call the NRO Cadre. And we’re growing! The NRO is recruiting top-notch talent to fuel our future success. We offer unlimited opportunities to support the nation’s security. So, I would say to the young future professionals out there and mid-career professionals, if you’re looking to lead the world in technology development and innovative partnerships related to space, then NRO is the place to be! The NRO is hiring. Come be part of our exciting mission.

Posted in: Perspective   Tagged in: 2020 Issue 1

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