NRO Declares Intent to Purchase Commercial GEOINT

Agency says commercial imagery will complement traditional IMINT


The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has something it wants you to know: It does not have a hit out on commercial imagery.

“I want to address that pesky little persistent rumor that keeps popping up about the NRO wanting to kill commercial GEOINT,” NRO Deputy Director of GEOINT Jimmy Comfort said Monday during a presentation on the GEOINT 2017 Government Pavilion Stage. “Nobody in the NRO of any significance is talking about killing commercial GEOINT. Period.”

In fact, NRO isn’t just an observer of the commercial GEOINT marketplace; henceforth, it will also be a customer, Comfort announced.

Ten to 15 years ago, NRO did some studies about per-pixel costs and which
systems were cheaper..” —Jimmy Comfort, Deputy Director of GEOINT, NRO

Indeed, NRO and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) last year introduced a joint collaboration known as the Commercial GEOINT Activity (CGA). Using CGA and an associated web platform called the CGA Leaderboard, the two agencies assess current resources and develop shared strategies for accessing, acquiring, and integrating new commercial GEOINT capabilities.

“We’ll be using [CGA] to inform the NRO’s commercial acquisition decisions as we start to procure and integrate this imagery into our future overhead architecture,” Comfort said. “Yes, you did hear that correctly: NRO will be procuring commercial imagery.”

There’s a good reason the NRO has never acquired commercial GEOINT before. And there’s a good reason it’s starting to do so now.

“Ten to 15 years ago, NRO did some studies about per-pixel costs and which systems were cheaper,” Comfort said. “Back then, the IC wasn’t using commercial imagery like it is today. So [NRO decided] it would be more efficient for us to just use our [National Technical Means],” Comfort said. “Fast forward to today … [and] commercial imagery is now a mainstay imagery collector for the United States.”

Certainly, NRO won’t cease to deploy classified national assets for its IMINT mission. Rather, NRO will use commercial imagery as a means to leverage national assets more effectively.

“There are times when it’s better not to take the image because other sensors have already told us there was nothing significant to report there,” Comfort said. “And what that really means is we can now use our high-performance—some might say exquisite—assets to go after something more important.”

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