In her GEOINT 2015 keynote, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Betty Sapp challenged those working in the commercial sector to rethink conventional wisdom about NRO and help the agency in its mission to provide innovative overhead intelligence systems for national security.
“For all of you in industry, I want you to tell me how you can help with our intelligence challenges—not why I should buy the system you’ve got ready to sell me,” she said.
Sapp said she doesn’t feel threatened by industry and the NRO has experienced a great partnership with commercial industry for a long time. She expects the partnerships to only grow in the future by working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to leverage more existing commercial products and welcomes the challenge of doing so.
“The more commercial can do, the more we can do different than we have in the past,” Sapp said. “We’re going to see where this goes. We’re certainly going to try and go higher, get things we’ve never been able to do before for the U.S.”
Sapp addressed some traditional notions of the NRO, namely that the organization has lost its innovative spirit, that it repeatedly builds the same things, and that it only does one size (big) and one speed (slow). Rather, she emphasized, the organization builds satellites of various sizes and can keep up with the pace of technology, putting mission payloads on a vehicle at the last minute. She added the NRO is also misunderstood because its innovation is not entirely in space. The ability to adapt spacecraft for flying new missions, for instance, happens on the ground.
Sapp said she didn’t need to remind the GEOINT 2015 audience that the world is a dangerous place and space is a critical component of national security. The intelligence NRO provides the defense community is unique in its global reach and flexibility, enabled by space-based assets, she said.
“Others that operate on the ground or in the air just don’t have the perspective offered by space, where I can see one-third of the globe with just one vehicle,” Sapp said. “Others in the IC have global presence, but they have to pick the places to put their assets,” and might not choose the right spot. NRO’s worldwide reach and flexibility are increasingly important as the IC’s high-interest areas shift more rapidly and frequently.
In the future, Sapp said NRO’s unique role would improve, with a greater focus on resilience, persistence, and sensitivity. Greater persistence can mean implementing the “stare” approach versus the “storm” approach. She used a sporting event as an example of the power of images taken from both high and low—from above for perspective and from down low for detail.
Sapp reiterated that moving forward depends largely on the performance of industry partners.
“We want partners who are as committed to our national security mission as we are,” she said. “We have a direct call line to users in the field. We do a lot to combine our imagery with that available from the commercial providers … It also lets us distribute things we might not be able to otherwise distribute.”