For decades its name could not be spoken outside of a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility or mentioned to someone without at least TS/SCI clearance.
It built wondrous satellites that did things like detecting missile launches from space that no one had believed possible until the National Reconnaissance Office did them.
But a string of failures, goofs and budget busters, combined with the increasing importance of intelligence gathered by air breathing assets such as Predator and Global Hawk drones, has led a prestigious commission of space experts to recommend that the NRO be merged with Space and Missile Systems Command to create something called the National Security Space Organization.
The recommendation is made by something called the Allard Commission, which was created by Congress last year. It is led by the national security space guru Tom Young, a former Lockheed Martine executive and the man who always seems to get the call to figure out how to fix space when things go wrong. Young has kept his panel’s recommendations under wraps but word began leaking out last week.
The plan would also lead to stripping the Air Force of its executive agent for space – the person who serves the Office of Secretary of Defense as the lead on unclassified space acquisitions – and transferring it to the new authority. This office will also have budget authority for all space programs.
This would include a combination of the NRO and SMC and “other elements of Air Force Space Command” to create a single National Security Space Command.
A veteran space intelligence expert, Bob Butterworth, rejected the Allard Commission’s proposals, especially its efforts to integrate so-called black (NRO) and white (military) space. “The effort to integrate is just misconceived,” he said. “People who even started out doing black-white integration mostly gave up after going through the first space based radar experience.” Space Radar was an idea generated from the top of the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon. It was supposed to provide the US with both moving target indication – the ability to track trucks and tanks – and highly refined strategic radar imagery of use to the intelligence community. The idea has foundered on the rocks of wildly differing requirements and enormous cost.
Integration exponents also argue that the space industrial base is largely shared between the two communities. Thus, integrating programs could save money and lessen the strain on the limited pool of engineers and other specialists needed to build satellites and their sensors.
“That has not been documented. It is just hand waving as far as I can tell,” Butterworth said.
For those watch these things closely, the Allard Commission’s use of the NSSO name has caused considerable confusion in the rumor mill. Was the commission recommending dissolution of the NSSO, an office without budgetary authority that advises the Pentagon’s executive agent for space? No. It was suggesting creation of an entirely new organization.
Part of the NRO’s problem is that under current law no one really knows – including congressional aides who help write the laws deciding this – who is in charge of classified acquisition programs. “This raises the question, who is in charge, and that is unanswerable,” said a congressional aide. For background on some of this, see last week’s story on the BASIC program.
Does this mean the NRO will vanish? The name may change, the organization may be rebuilt but the functions won’t disappear. More on this tomorrow.