TCS Daily

Bloodshot Eyes in the Sky

By Kenneth Silber - December 30, 2002 12:00 AM

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency that develops and operates America's spy satellites, faces a crucial challenge in the showdown with Iraq. The challenge, of course, is to monitor Iraq's military movements and weapons of mass destruction. But it is also to demonstrate that NRO, after a troubled decade, is up to the vital national task assigned to it.

During the Cold War, NRO was esteemed in policymaking circles and the intelligence community as an extraordinarily competent organization. The agency built sophisticated satellites and deployed them with speed and skill. It developed reconnaissance satellites that could read the markings on Soviet missiles, and eavesdropping satellites that could listen in on Kremlin car phones. NRO's eyes in space saw through deceptions such as a Soviet decoy "submarine" that stayed in port while the real sub went to sea.

NRO was also the most secret of U.S. intelligence agencies. Until September 1992, the government did not officially acknowledge the agency's existence (although bumbling congressional staffers had inadvertently disclosed the organization's name in the 1970s).

But having helped win the Cold War, NRO floundered in the 1990s. The agency drew criticism on matters ranging from the construction of an expensive new headquarters in Virginia, to failures to adequately inform Congress about agency finances, to a slowness to develop innovative satellite programs to meet post-Cold War threats. In recent years, NRO has focused on developing a next-generation spy satellite system called the Future Imagery Architecture. But the project has been bogged down in cost overruns and delays.

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the military importance of space reconnaissance. Yet it also showed the difficulty of getting useful satellite images and data to the battlefield commanders, as opposed to generating information that can be pored over at length by stateside analysts and policymakers. NRO has put a growing emphasis on meeting the needs of U.S. combat units, but how much progress has been made remains to be seen.

More recently, while NRO certainly contributed to the U.S. success in Afghanistan, the agency's involvement was overshadowed by a growing military reliance on NASA and commercial satellite imagery. And the Afghanistan conflict featured a bold new use of unmanned aerial vehicles, raising new questions about how best to divide reconnaissance between aerial and space assets. (NRO was founded in 1960 largely in response to the Soviet Union's downing of the U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.)

But there need be little doubt that spy satellites will continue to be of vital importance. Reconnaissance and eavesdropping satellites provide coverage of wider territories than can be monitored from aerial platforms, and operate beyond the reach of enemy radar and antiaircraft fire. They also provide the legal and political flexibility of avoiding any infringement on a nation's sovereign airspace. And more numerous spy satellites are required to monitor decentralized threats than to watch a single hostile superpower. Recent days have underscored the urgency of satellite surveillance, with Iraq's downing of a U.S. aerial drone and North Korea's move to restart a mothballed nuclear plant.

What is less clear, however, is whether NRO is sufficiently ready for the challenges of being a spy satellite agency in the 21st century. The conflict with Iraq will be a test of that proposition, as will the broader war on terrorism. The agency's performance may not be readily discernible to the general public, but is sure to be watched closely in national-security circles. The agency that once didn't officially exist has a reputation to refurbish.



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