The presumptive next director of the National Reconnaissance Office, builder and operator of America's spy satellites, is the recently retired commander of Air Force Materiel Command, Bruce Carlson. His predecessor at the NRO, Scott Large, resigned one day after President Obama approved a major new electro-optical spy satellite system that will be built and operated by the spy satellite agency.
Carlson has limited experience in the space world, as his official biography makes clear. He did serve at Strategic Command as head of the Joint Functional Component Command for space and global strike from 2002 to 2005, but he is not a hard-core space enthusiast or a top technologist. In the past that would have made him an unlikely candidate to lead the tight-knit NRO. He retired from the Air Force on New Year's Day.
The initial reaction to his selection from the intelligence community was positive. "Good pick, I believe. Limited experience in space or intel but a classy guy who I think will lead the place," a former senior intelligence official wrote in an email.
"If he is selected for DNRO, Bruce Carlson certainly has the right background and experience to do a tremendous job," said Keith Masback, president of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. "Carlson's street cred with the warfighters, bona fide space operations time, as well as significant acquisition leadership experience, make him uniquely qualified to lead the ongoing resurgence of the NRO."
A former senior Air Force official with intelligence experience noted that the Obama administration has "had a very hard time finding someone qualified that would take the job" and was surprised to hear Carlson surface as a DNRO candidate. This source said Carlson would bring one very important attribute to the NRO: "One characteristic of four-stars, all four stars but especially ones that had significant three-star jobs as Carlson did (J-8 and 8th AF), is that they like to be in charge, know how to be in charge, and expect to be in charge. The fact that Carlson is pretty new to details of space, and even NRO-like acquisition management, won't keep him from being in charge. He'll come up to speed fast, but won't give away his authorities while that is happening."
Change is clearly afoot at the NRO. Betty Sapp, until two weeks ago the deputy undersecretary for intelligence, acquisition, resources, and technology, is the NRO's new principal deputy director. Sapp is reportedly part of a push by her former boss, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Jim Clapper, to restore milestone decision authority to the NRO. Under current law, the NRO's acquisition authority is held jointly by the Defense Secretary and the Director of National Intelligence. And the NRO has been stripped of its authority at least three times in the last few years as concerns have grown about its ability to execute its critical mission of building the right stuff to gather information from space on our friends and enemies.
However, Masback said Sapp could prove crucial to the NRO, citing her "superb reputation for being detail-oriented, demanding, and a tireless worker," as well as her strong ties to the Defense Department.
The former senior Air Force official agreed that Sapp would be valuable in her new role: "Betty will be a #2 - probably a very valuable one because she's smart and knows where a decade-worth of skeletons are stored (not buried) and has good instincts, but definitely the #2."