From The Editor | April 25, 2012

NRO Director Outlines U.S. Reconnaissance Activities, Concerns In SPIE DSS Plenary Presentation

By Ron Grunsby, Editor

Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), gave a brief overview of NRO activities since the early 1960s, discussed current worldwide threats, and touched on the office’s most recent budget submission requirements in his presentation at the SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing plenary event on Monday.

Carlson, the featured speaker, was appointed the 17th director of the NRO on June 12, 2009. As director, he provides direction, guidance, and supervision over all matters pertaining to the NRO and executes other authorities specifically delegated by the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence. Before his appointment, after retiring from the U.S. Air Force in January 2009, Carlson was a defense industry consultant and member of the Board of Directors of EADS North America. He has overseen the successful launch of seven NRO satellites into space.

In his plenary presentation, Carlson gave a brief overview of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON satellite reconnaissance programs, details of which were declassified on September 17, 2011. These programs were involved in everything from observing the Soviet space program to precision mapping. They acquired imagery intelligence by taking photographs and returning the undeveloped film to earth.

According to Carlson, several worldwide threats concern the NRO at this time, including:

  • Al-Qaeda
  • Global Jihad
  • Iran's technical advancements and uranium enrichment
  • North Korea's export activities
  • Emerging cyber technologies implemented before security responses

Carlson sees a need to upgrade the U.S. constellation due to these threats. “You all saw North Korea launch what they called a satellite,” he said. “It didn’t go where it was supposed to go, and that was perfectly fine with us. It wasn’t a satellite — it was an ICBM test, and we know that they are proliferating their nuclear technology."

The NRO is currently engaged in developing revolutionary satellite technologies through novel nanomaterials and is conducting carbon nanotube research. They want to use the strongest and lightest multifunctional material for structures and components. They are also working on a radiation-hardened microelectronics program, developing advanced microelectronics for communication links, signal acquisition, onboard processing, and onboard data storage.

A very important need for the NRO is immediate image acquisition. Carlson said that the average analyst spends 80% of his time looking for things and 20% analyzing — in his opinion, this needs to be reversed.

The most recent budget submission, which required a Department of Defense intelligence community cut of $450 billion, is also an area of concern for Carlson. "The NRO provided one-third of all the intelligence community cuts, and that amount was double that of any other intelligence community agency," he said. "Independent cost estimate savings allowed us to save all of our programs and ground stations, but there is no more fat to trim."