Integrating more sensors and doing it faster and cheaper is the direction for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) as it moves into its second 50 years, the director said.
“We know what we have to do,” Bruce Carlson, NRO director said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast recently. “That is, we have to provide the best integrated intelligence in the world. That’s the goal. Now, do it faster and cheaper.
NRO is integrating signals intelligence and various sensors to do such things as pinpoint IEDS, Carlson said. That can be done because many are command detonated. The “Red Dot” program provides a red dot on a display screen showing “a high probability” an IED is there. This program has been in place about six months and can detect “most” IEDs.
Locating push-to-talk radios, used extensively in the combat zone, has become easier with the advance of science over the past few years. The radios are “incredibly difficult to locate,” Carlson said. The complexity of pinpointing them “requires overhead assets.” The more sensors that focus on the radios, allows geolocation to be quick and accurate.
“We used to get location within three miles,” he said. “Now we measure it in meters. That means it’s targetable.”
The NRO’s next 50 years also will have to take on the tension between an expanding deluge of information and making sense of it to solve specific problems as required.
The ones and zeros that stream from satellites are the same, once the satellites are launched there’s no way to go up and tweak the system.
“The secret to taking those ones and zeros and making information out of them is innovative ground processing,” Carlson said. “Up until just a few years ago, we didn’t have the computing power or the tools that were adaptive enough to process that stuff more than a couple of ways. Today with computing power we have, we’re able to integrate those ones and zeros, not just from what we pick up but what airplanes pick up and what ground sensors pick up.”
Integration of the sensors is much better.
“We’ve made a one order of magnitude jump but we’re five orders of magnitude less than we need to be,” Carlson said. “That’s the secret the tracking problem and the deluge of information the ability to sort to all that out, and pick out the meaningful half a percent that you need to solve those equations.”
Innovation will help develop the tools to do this, some from NRO’s in-house science and technology area. NSA, the powerhouse of supercomputing is another partner, as are the national and service labs and industry.
Out of the shadows from the strategic reconnaissance world of 1961 NRO this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, with six launches in seven months and with “all major system acquisitions in the green, developing on schedule, on contract and on price, Carlson said. Today the organization supports the NATO Libya mission as well as its traditional strategic and tactical customers.
Part of NRO’s celebration is the declassification of the KH 7 and KH-8 Gambit imaging satellite, and the KH-9 Hexagon, also known as “big bird.” The technology is obsolete, but in their day, they were state of the art.
The 60 foot long, 10 foot around Hexagon satellite carried four film canisters that were ejected to be picked up by C-119 and C-130 aircraft in the Pacific. “They took more pictures on the first successful flight of that system than they took in all the U-2 flights ever taken,” Carlson said.
They were the largest spy satellites the United States put in orbit, taking photos from about 1971 to the early 1980s.