JUST IN: NRO, Air Force Boosting Collaboration on Space-Based ISR
Rocket Lab photo
The National Reconnaissance Office is strengthening its relationship with the Space Force to jointly supply intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to the Pentagon, the head of the organization said August 4.
Both the NRO and Department of the Air Force — which houses the Space Force and its acquisition programs — are tasked with collecting and sharing satellite imagery and other intelligence data to federal agencies, including the Defense Department.
In order to field space-based tactical ISR capabilities, NRO Director Chris Scolese and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall have an informal working relationship that both leaders are looking to expand to address future threats, Scolese said.
“The world is changing, and we need information faster and we need to deliver it quicker,” he said during an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “We’re going to tighten that relationship, we’re going to work more closely together and we’re going to find ways so that we can be efficient.”
This could also lead to co-funding more projects in the future, he added.
Because the NRO traditionally has provided highly classified, tactical-level ISR from space to both the Pentagon and the intelligence community, some have expressed concern that the Space Force could overlap with those missions as it builds up its own space-based ISR capabilities.
However, Scolese said that even as the NRO and Air Force collaborate and jointly fund projects, there have not been any congressional authorization or appropriations challenges.
“I think the reason … is, we tell people what we’re going to do,” he said. If both organizations keep all stakeholders informed of “what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we’ve had that support and I think we’ll continue to have that support,” he added.
The NRO, Space Force and U.S. Space Command have addressed potential overlaps and gaps in each organization’s function in space as part of the Protect and Defend Strategic Framework, Scolese said. Published last year, the document aims to deconflict roles and establish the foundations for how the organizations will operate under various conditions, he said.
There is also an opportunity to share the NRO’s experience in fielding ISR and knowledge of systems with the Air Force as it modernizes, Scolese added.
In March, Kendall outlined seven “operational imperatives” as a way to create a roadmap for the Air and Space Force’s goals and acquisition priorities. Some of those imperatives hinge on resilient and effective space-based ISR capabilities.
“We have a lot of experience that we can bring to bear on that,” Scolise said. “We’re working very closely with the Air Force and Space Force on how we go about doing that, how we take what we’ve learned and what capabilities we have to solve a very urgent problem.”
The NRO and the Air Force are conducting a joint study to inform how both organizations can move forward on information sharing, he added.
Meanwhile, the NRO successfully launched a classified payload this week using a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex-1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. The office is looking to leverage more commercial services for its future launches and plans to bring in companies annually to foster conversation and collaboration, Scolese said.
“Commercial gives us the ability to share more and faster without revealing technical means, but providing the information that the community needs,” he said. “The warfighter may not need the exquisite imagery, but they need to know what's there, and commercial [technology] gives them that.”