Expect fireworks from a pair of meetings yesterday and Wednesday about the future of what was one of Americas most closely guarded secret weapons, the National Reconnaissance Office.
A tiger team is meeting to discuss what could be an enormous expansion of the NRO's power, from its current focus on building and operating highly classified imaging and radar satellites to building and operating all US military and intelligence space and ISR assets. The panel received the recommendations of what we've been calling the Obering panel, created by the Director of National Intelligence to examine every facet of the NRO — its mission, charter, staffing, requirements, organization, funding and relationship to other organizations. One of the key jobs the Obering panel had was drafting a new charter for the NRO. The current charter was drafted 44 years ago and refers to jobs that no longer exist.
The panel, led by Trey Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency, included: Marty Faga, a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a former NRO director; Joanne Isham, head of Washington operations for L-1 Identity Solutions and former deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics who recently penned a study recommending acquisition changes for the NRO; Tom Moorman, a VP at Booz Allen who was named by Space News as one of the 10 most influential space leaders; and Vincent Vitto former president and CEO of the Draper Lab, a private research and development company and vice chairman of the Defense Science Board.
According to a source familiar with the debate inside the IC and Air Force, three options were on the table at the meetings this week, in the best bureaucratic fashion. Column A is the status quo. Column B would rewrite the NRO's charter to grant it all Air Force and intelligence community space. Column C -- what we'll call the nuclear option -- would grant the NRO control over all space and ISR assets in the IC and military.
But, as often happens in the all-too-shadowy world of intelligence, other sources describe the options differently. "I don’t think the options range as widely as you’ve heard," said this former senior Defense Department official. "There is no thought to assigning non-recon space to NRO or any aircraft programs. I think that satellite reconnaissance needs to be done in one place and SecDef/DNI have to decide whether the ongoing fractionation is something they want or don’t." If you parse the language here, this source overlaps with the first source in saying that all reconnaissance space assets might be run by the NRO. Given how deliberately obscure sources have been on the debate about how the NRO should be constituted, let's say the real choices are between the status quo and giving the NRO control over all space reconnaissance programs.
A congressional aide who has followed this issue for years said the status quo choice is the most likely, as did the former senior DoD official. However, the first source --who has worked long and effectively in the Air Force and intelligence space communities -- genuinely fears that the NRO may suck up a substantial portion of the Air Force's space missions and approached me because of those fears.
Perhaps over the weekend we can start to get some reading as to how the briefings went and just where this is all headed.