Aerospace industry analysts are wondering how the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will be able to achieve a quadrupling in the production of agency satellites in the next decade and whether a forecast ten-fold increase in signals and imagery collection will matter if the NRO does not have adequate artificial intelligence (AI) to sort that data.

“Within the next decade, NRO expects to quadruple the number of satellites we have on orbit—different sizes, orbits, both commercial and national,” NRO Deputy Director Maj. Gen. Christopher Povak told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ virtual forum on Oct. 10. “These satellites will deliver over 10 times as many signals and images that we collect today. The proliferation and diversification of our architecture will provide increased coverage, greater capacity and resilience, and more timely delivery of data. It will create more persistent coverage over any area of the Earth, provide faster revisit rates, and increase the accuracy and fidelity of our data.”

One industry analyst said that the projected ten-fold increase in data is “the last thing” that NRO needs unless the agency can find a way to harness that data increase.

NRO’s primary users have been the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) to provide strategic insights to the president, the intelligence community (IC), and Defense Department, but NRO has said that it is moving to an increasing use of proliferated satellite constellations, commercial imagery, sensors, and to being able to support combatant commanders (COCOMs) and fielded military forces, not necessarily with raw data feeds but with NGA and NSA-processed data.

“This proliferation and diversification of our architecture will provide increased coverage, greater capability, resilience, revisit rates, and more timely delivery of data,” the NRO said on Oct. 12 in response to a question on how the agency will quadruple the build of NRO satellites and how that ramping up will lead to 10 times the collection of imagery and signal collection.

“NRO will also see significant benefits from using existing systems in new ways,” the agency said. “NRO is also leveraging partnerships with commercial partners as well as within the IC and DoD. For example, commercial launch systems are driving down the cost of launch, enabling us to put more capability on orbit and deliver it faster while commercial production practices will enable us to build more satellites at a lower cost. To maximize NRO’s architecture, NRO is developing tools and techniques to effectively manage and task the architecture so it can rapidly convert data to information the user needs. We will continue investing in AI and other technologies that can allow the system to determine what products may be needed to address intelligence issues.”

Over the last two years, the NRO has been pursuing a commercial Broad Agency Announcement strategic framework for electro-optical and radar imagery, radio frequency data, and hyperspectral imagery.

In addition, the NRO has moved to increase the number of launch locations for agency payloads from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. and Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. to New Zealand and Wallops Island, Va. Launch site proliferation may aid in replacing satellites lost during conflicts.

Povak said that “our production lines of systems, instead of taking six to eight years to create one specific satellite, we are now producing multiple satellites every year.”

“With that inventory, with that production line, things like replenishment and reconstitution are becoming much more a potential for us than 10-15 years ago,” he said. “The NRO is looking at what opportunities those might provide to us in our ability to respond to some of our customers.”

A combatant commander who has needed ground moving target indication (GMTI) from a Northrop Grumman [NOC] Joint STARS aircraft has been able to task the aircraft, but the concept of employment for a future GMTI space-based radar (SBR) to replace the Joint STARS is still under consideration by the NRO and the U.S. Space Force–the requirements lead for SBR. The Pentagon Joint Requirements Oversight Council is to finalize such requirements.

“We are working closely with the Department of Defense and the IC to have a better understanding of the timeliness requirements, the specific capabilities, the coverage, the revisit rates, the fidelity of collection to ensure that, as we’re going out to the marketplace to determine what is available to ensure that we’re getting those capabilities in a timeliness that’s relevant to all of our customers,” Povak said of NRO support for COCOMs.

Asked whether such timeliness may involve the NRO provision of agency raw data to COCOMs for their own analysis, Povak replied, “We are working very hard to get dissemination of data to the last tactical mile” and that “that is a partnership between us, NSA, NGA, and the combatant commands working closely together.”

“Our job is to ensure that we have the contract mechanisms in place and the integrated architecture that allows us to process and disseminate that data based on our users’ needs,” he said.