Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How Times Have Changed

For years, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was often referred to as the "super secret" or "shadowy" National Reconnaissance Office. And with good reason. As chief architect of the nation's spy satellite program, the NRO was tasked with developing and deploying the crown jewels in the nation's intelligence community, the space-based platforms that collect and downlink information on a variety of countries, programs and issues.

The NRO was once so highly classified that the organization officially "didn't exist." NRO engineers and program managers operated under a variety of cover stories (DOD civilians, Air Force employees) to conceal ties to their real employer. There was a certain irony in the attempts at secrecy; despite its official "clandestine" status, the NRO was well-known on Capitol Hill, where generations of Congressman and Senators gave the agency the required funding to build even more sophisticated satellites.

The NRO's clout in Washington was legendary and well-deserved, much to the chagrin of larger, most established intelligence organizations. A former NSA director once complained that NRO represented "less than two percent" of the intel community (in terms of manning), but they controlled virtually the entire satellite budget, giving them a disproportionate influence on not only how information was collected, but what could be collected as well.

My, how times have changed. In today's ever-tightening budget envrionment, today's NRO has clearly emerged from "behind the green door," and has taken steps to raise its public profile. If you were watching CNN last night, you saw live coverage of an NRO satellite launch (on a Delta IV rocket) from Vandenburg AFB, California. has details on the event and informed speculation on the satellite's likely mission. CNN's invitation to cover the launch is remarkable; not too many years ago, the press would have been barred from Vandenburg, with the satellite being described (tersely) as a "classified, military payload."

But CNN's coverage wasn't limited to the actual lift-off. With NRO's permission, one of the cable network's reporters was given a tour of a "clean room" while the satellite was being prepped for launch. From what I'm told, NRO limited what CNN could show of the tour, but you've got to wonder: our intel analysts, working with far less information, do an amazing job at constructing the capabilities of foreign satellites. How much data did foreign analysts glean last night, from that officially-sanctioned dog-and-pony on CNN. And, BTW, I'm not blaming the cable network. They were invited guests for the launch, and for the "clean room" tour shown to millions of viewers around the world.

Openess is fine, but when it comes to protecting spy satellite technology, I much prefer the old, secretive NRO.


HaloJonesFan said...

Where our satellites are, what they can do, and how well they do it is a secret that's laughably open in the world. They might as well declassify the whole unit and make the imagery available to the general public; go back to Eisenhower's "Open Skies".

Spook86 said...

Sadly, you are correct. There are countless web sites that provide far too much info (IMO) on these programs, and--making matters worse--anyone with a decent-quality telescope and a P.C. can get into the space tracking/analysis business.

However, there ought to be limits to the "freebies" we provide to potential adversaries. IMO, a video tour of a spy satellite clean room should have never received a green light.

John (Useful Fools) said...

A few questions...

How did someone deduce that it was going into a Molniya orbit? Also, what is the advantage (for a spy satellite) of such an orbit (which is quasi-geostationary in AZ/EL tracking but has very high dopplers and signal strength changes)? I suppose it requires less energy to retarget it, and perhaps one can make the orbital adjustments while the think is near the perigee, hence secretly. I don't know.

I would also question just how well the capabilities of the sats are known. Sure, the orbits are known - that is nothing new (although there could be stealthy satellites out there - masquerading as space junk or whatever). But the real questions involve spatial resolution limits, total coverage capability (data rate limited among other things), and for ELINT satellites, all sorts of other parameters. I'm not sure a clean-room tour would be enough to suss out that sort of stuff - especially if a little maskirovna was used.

Retired Spook said...

I was in the Navy SIGINT community from 1965 to 1989, during which time "imagery" was seldom discussed, much less shared with the press (CNN, no less). As halojonesfan says, it's gone from a highly compartmented, sensative subject to common knowledge. It disturbs me that the press feels that the general public has a "need to know" our most closely guarded secrets. Sooner or later a lot of innocent people are going to die because of this mindset.

HaloJonesFan said...

A satellite's orbit is easily deduced merely by observing its position twice; the equations of orbital mechanics can then determine its orbital parameters, and from then on you can predict its position to the millimeter. (There are some effects due to the varying density of the Earth, but even those are well-understood after fifty years of spaceflight.)

The benefit of the Molniya orbit is that you combine a long loiter time over the area of interest (a characteristic of higher orbits) with more cycles per day (a characteristic of lower orbits.) The long loiter means that you can take more pictures; the higher number of cycles means that you update more often. A Molniya is also cheaper to get into than an HEO or GEO orbit.

Recon satellites aren't the only ones that use that type of orbit. Sirius Radio satellites do the same thing; they are in "high/slow" orbit over the CONUS, and "low/fast" orbit over the rest of the world.

Andrew said...

The NRO is a terrible organization. It is not even technically a member of the intelligence community since it provides no intelligence or analysis. The NRO is basically a procurement agency that buys stuff for other agencies, primarily the NSA and NGA. That's why its staff is so small and consists almost entirely of acquisition managers. The NSA and NGA submit technical requirements and the NRO lobbies to fill those requirements with space assets it procures from the defense industry. It doesn't even design or build the satellites. Like all large government procurement beaurocracies, the only measure of NRO's success or failure is the size of its budget, so it does everything it can to increase it. There have been several instances where NSA SIGINT requirements would have been better and more cheaply fulfilled with non-space based systems. But the NRO, through its powerful contractor lobby in congress, won the battle to fulfill those roles with expensive satellite systems to the financial detriment of the intelligence community.

The NRO is nothing but a giant budget leech. In my perfect world, the NRO would be disbanded and its procurement functions would be moved where they belong - to the agencies that actually need and use space-based intelligence. The NRO is a middle-man we don't need.

As for the classification question, let's get real. The specific capabilities of our satellites are classified. Viewing them pre-launch gives away nothing since they're shown in a packaged condition. The orbit tells much more about their purpose and anyone with an elementary knowledge of physics can pretty much determine what their orbit will be simply by watching what direction the launch vehicle travels after liftoff.

Besides, imagery satellites are no longer as useful as they once were. They still have a role in tracking OOB's and I&W, but real-time video imagery from UAV's is where it's at in a tactical environment.