The nation’s eminence in space depends on more than just NRO and Space Force. Equally, it hinges on partners in commercial industry and academia.
Space is dark. Space is vast. Space is mysterious. And if you ask leaders on Team GEOINT, space is the key to maintaining a strategic advantage over America’s adversaries.
Two of those leaders—Hon. Chris Scolese, Ph.D., director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and Hon. James Cooper, a former Congressman who’s credited with helping to establish the U.S. Space Force—explained why during a moderated discussion Tuesday morning on the main stage at GEOINT 2023 in St. Louis.
“I believe we are still [staying ahead of our adversaries], but it’s becoming more and more challenging, particularly as they become more and more capable,” Scolese told moderator Letitia Long, former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and current chair of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), during the 30-minute conversation.
“China, in particular, is experimenting a lot, is innovating. And it’s requiring us—the whole community, much of it represented here—to continue to be innovative, to continue to look for new ideas, to continue to find ways to expand our capabilities, not only in technology but also in the commercial world,” Scolese continued. “As long as we keep on innovating, as long as we keep on finding ways to work harder, and as long as we keep on experimenting and learning, I think we can stay ahead of our competition.”
That’s especially true with regard to space, according to Scolese, who said NRO has been doing its part by continuing to execute with excellence its mission of acquiring commercial GEOINT and sharing it with its customers across the federal government—including the Space Force, with which NRO has been building a productive and positive relationship since the Space Force’s inception in 2019.
“Our relationship with the Space Force has been very good. We’re glad it’s there,” Scolese said. “It’s become extremely important to the nation and the world that we understand what’s happening on Earth, and the best place to understand that is from space…Space has become congested, contested, and potentially a very competitive environment. So having a Space Force, I think, is something that’s very, very beneficial to the nation.”
In fact, industry publication Breaking Defense reported Monday that NRO and Space Force have reached an informal agreement to exchange commercial imagery with each other in an effort cultivate sharing and avoid duplication. When Long asked him about the report, Scolese indicated that he supports continued collaboration across the two agencies, as well as the broader Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community (IC) ecosystems.
“NRO has the responsibility for acquiring commercial capability and making that available as broadly as possible. Anything we can do…that will help us distribute that capability—make it available to the broadest group in the government—is beneficial, and we’ll continue to work with Space Force to do that,” he said. “At the same time, we have to recognize that Space Force also has authorities in different areas—space domain awareness is one—that are not in the NRO’s job jar, if you will. So they’ll have some roles to go off and acquire things, and we want to make sure we can make that as broadly available as possible.”
The nation’s eminence in space depends on more than just NRO and Space Force, however. Equally, it hinges on partners in commercial industry and academia, according to Scolese, who offered artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) as examples of industry-led innovation.
“When we think of AI and ML…it started in laboratories in Boston and in California,” he said. “And there are many other ideas that are there that will allow us to go off into the future.”
Turning those ideas into operational capabilities for the IC, DoD, and other government entities requires new contractual mechanisms, but also new, more intimate kinds of partnerships.
“Who would have thought 20 years ago, or certainly at the inception of the NRO, that we would be relying as much as we do on commercial capabilities? That’s requiring new relationships,” Scolese said. “We’re trying to push the envelope as much as we can in terms of delivery of capability…That means we as a community have to pay a lot more attention to what’s going on, which means we have to communicate much more effectively and clearly to each other.”
Although it doesn’t have the means to do so yet, talent exchanges are one idea that NRO is considering in order to foster new relationships with industry, Scolese noted. “We’re exploring it,” he said. “There’s challenges associated with it, but we’re working on it.”
In the meantime, NRO continues to bring new commercial capabilities and services into its architecture—including not only commercial electro-optical imagery, but also commercial radar, radio frequency, and hyperspectral capabilities, all of which NRO is onboarding through its Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contracts with mature companies like BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet.
Small businesses also can get in on the action, however, through vehicles like the Director’s Innovation Initiative and the NRO Tech Forum. Through those and other mechanisms, startups have the opportunity to learn about IC needs and compete for NRO funding that will help them develop products and services that satisfy them, Scolese said.
The IC can further take advantage of small business innovation by removing barriers to working with government, Cooper indicated.
“Red tape should not rule the world,” he said. “Working together we’re stronger. It’s a long race, and we’ve got to have teamwork to win.”
On the subject of teamwork, Cooper said government must focus as much on cutting red tape for prospective talent as it does on cutting red tape for prospective commercial partners.
“How do we appeal to Gen Z, to millennials, to immigrants? We need the best talent in the world, and we need it yesterday,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to have structures and bureaucracies that welcome them and make it easy to access. For example, Space Force. Why do you have to wear a uniform to control a satellite?…I don’t care if you have a nose ring or tattoos or whatever; if you’ve got a brain, we need you.”
At NRO, Space Force, and countless other agencies, building a stronger team that includes more internal talent and more external partners won’t just enable increased innovation. Also, it will enable increased speed.
“We used to be able to field satellites in two years—some of them took eight months. We don’t even dream of that anymore,” Cooper said. “We have to get back to those days.”
Technology and architecture can help just as much as talent can. Cooper, for example, spoke to the need for increased ground stations that will help users make more and better use of satellites. Scolese, meanwhile, called for the development of new tools to assist with data processing, exploitation, and dissemination—including AI- and machine learning-based tools with which to more efficiently task and manage large and complex satellite constellations.
Although it’s not yet clear what tools will help the United States dominate in space, or what commercial partnerships will help bring them to bear, the parting message for Team GEOINT was unmistakable.
“We have a great opportunity here to keep on advancing,” Scolese concluded, “but we need to work very closely together.”
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