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One of the most secretive agencies in the federal government, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launches the nation’s military spy satellites. NRO takes orders from both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence and is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program. The agency shares its top secret data not only with military planners, but also members of the Intelligence Community. At one time, NRO’s technical sophistication was highly regarded, but after a series of blunders in recent years, the agency’s reputation has plummeted.


The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was officially established in September 1961 as a classified agency in the Department of Defense (DoD) to create the nation’s first system of orbiting spy satellites to keep watch over the Soviet Union. CORONA, the nation’s first spy satellite system, was operational from 1960-1972 and collected more than 800,000 images. But DoD government did not declassify information about the satellites until 1995, along with the spy satellites ARGON and LANYARD. GRAB, the nation’s first signals intelligence satellite system, wasn’t declassified until 1998.
NRO itself wasn’t publicly acknowledged by US officials until 1992, when the Bush administration began making changes to American military policy in the wake of the ending of the Cold War. In 1996, military officials for the first time verified the launching of a spy satellite by NRO at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NRO also launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.
Once the cloak of secrecy was partially removed from NRO, the media began to uncover financial misdeeds by those running the agency. Since its founding (and even through to today), the budget of NRO has been classified, and only a select handful of lawmakers in Congress are privy to how much is given each year to the agency. In 1994, NRO was caught having secretly and illegally spent $300 million on an office complex in Fairfax County, Virginia, that defense contractor Rockwell International helped construct.
The following year, the media reported that NRO had stashed away $1 billion in unspent funds without informing superiors at the Pentagon and CIA or in Congress. Then-CIA Director John Deutch ordered an investigation in the wake of the revelation and supposedly instituted a restructuring of NRO’s financial management.
During the administration of George W. Bush, NRO officials have continued to get in trouble over money matters and for their satellites falling out of the sky (see Controversies). One story described the agency as being “shoved to the sidelines” by President Bush because he did not view it as reliable in helping fight the Global War on Terrorism.

Congressional Panels Take Back $1 Billion From Satellite Agency

(by Tim Weiner, New York Times)


What it Does  

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is responsible for launching and maintaining the nation’s military spy satellites. A highly secretive agency located in the Department of Defense, NRO takes orders from both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence and is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program. The agency shares its top secret data not only with military planners, but also members of the Intelligence Community.
However, NRO provides very little information about its operations to the public because specific NRO satellite capabilities, numbers and names are classified. It does announce when a new satellite goes into orbit, such as its March 13, 2008 release, but no details are provided. NRO describes itself as “a hybrid organization” that is jointly staffed by members of the armed services, the CIA and Pentagon civilian personnel.
NRO consists of more than a dozen offices including: Management Services and Operations; Business Plans and Operations; Chief Information Officer; Chief Operating Officer; Deputy Director for Mission Support; Program Control; Systems Engineering; System Operations; Ground Enterprise Directorate; Imagery Intelligence Systems Directorate; Signals Intelligence Systems Directorate; Communications Acquisition and Operations Directorate; Advanced Systems and Technology; Office of Space Launch.
In addition to taking care of its fleet of spy satellites, NRO conducts war game scenarios to prepare the agency in the event of an attack or accident that might disrupt its operations. On Sept. 11, 2001, the very day a hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon, NRO officials were planning to simulate a plane crash into NRO’s headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia. The scenario, NRO officials later insisted, had nothing to do with terrorism, but involved a private plane accidentally crashing into the agency’s building.

Information on the NRO by the Federation of American Scientists


Where Does the Money Go  

The National Reconnaissance Office’s expenditures are classified, which limits information on agency contracts. What is known is that defense contractor Lockheed Martin has performed work for NRO since at least 1998, based on this release by the agency regarding a satellite launch.
Another announcement in 1999 stated that Boeing had been hired to develop the “next generation of imagery reconnaissance satellites.” Defense analysts estimated that the contract was worth approximately $4 billion. However, because of delays and cost-overruns by Boeing, NRO brought Lockheed Martin in to help straighten out the program. In 2008, one of the first new satellites went dead shortly after going into orbit and had to be shot down (see Controversies). 
NRO also has revealed that another defense giant, Raytheon, was awarded a contract to build the ground infrastructure portion of the Future Imagery Architecture. Northrop Grumman was hired to help build a new kind of space radar.
Other, smaller companies have received contracts from NRO include Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) which was awarded a $30 million contract to continue supporting the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Applications and Integration Office (SAIO) and NRO’s SIGINT Directorate.
Globecomm Systems Inc., which handles satellite-based communications, was awarded a $1.1 million contract for the design and build of “new transportable multi-band earth terminals.” The contract, which included a $3 million option for production units, represented the first time the company had worked for NRO.
Veridian Corporation won a $19.7 million deal to provide a range of core technical and administrative support to NRO. Veridian supplies information-based systems, integrated solutions and services specializing in mission-critical national security programs for the Intelligence Community, the Pentagon and government agencies involved in homeland security.

Veridian awarded $19.7m core services contract to support National Reconnaissance Office

(EDP Weekly's IT Monitor)



NRO Cancels Space Radar System
The National Reconnaissance Office notified Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin in early April 2008 that it was terminating their contracts on the troubled Space Radar development project. The program had suffered from cost overruns, schedule delays and technological problems.
The space radar system was designed to provide the military and intelligence officials constant data, surveillance and reconnaissance around the world.
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the cost to develop, produce and operate Space Radar through 2027 was estimated at between $20 billion and $25 billion. The military had planned to launch the first Space Radar satellite in 2016, but GAO found that the five technologies central to Space Radar were not yet available based on current science.
Military Shoots Down NRO Satellite
In January 2008, the National Reconnaissance Office had to admit that one of its satellites was in danger of crashing to earth, forcing the Pentagon to draw up plans to shoot it down. Even more embarrassing was the revelation that the satellite, identified by amateur astronomers as a USA-193 built by Lockheed Martin, had failed shortly after being launched in December 2006.
The satellite was part of the next-generation of spy satellites that NRO had invested billions into developing.
On February 21, 2008, the Navy successfully shot down the ailing satellite without causing harm to anyone on the ground.
Satellite Spotters Glimpse Secrets, and Tell Them (by John Schwatrz, New York Times)
Hobbyists vs. National Reconnaissance Office (by Mike Nizza, New York Times)
NRO Chief Admits Failures
Before leaving NRO for a post under the Director of National Intelligence, Donald Kerr told Congress that he was in favor of killing two expensive satellites systems under development. The testimony represented a rare public admission by the secretive agency over its failure to launch next generation satellites into space. Neither Kerr nor the lawmakers at the hearing revealed the names of the two satellite systems in question. However, speculation indicated that one program was the Misty satellite program, which was to have stealth qualities so it could not be tracked from Earth. The other program was not identified.

Nominee Defends Ending Programs: Kerr Testifies About Satellite Contracts

(by Walter Pincus, Washington Post)


Suggested Reforms  

In response to the controversies that enveloped the agency duting the 1990s, Congress authorized a special panel to evaluate the work and operations of the National Reconnaissance Office. The National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office reported its findings in November 2000. It offered up several recommendations.
Establish an Office of Space Reconnaissance
Following recent concerns over a decline in NRO’s technical developments of new satellites, the agency should create a new office that would allow it to concentrate its most advanced research, development and acquisition efforts to restore the high caliber work NRO used to be known for. The Office of Space Reconnaissance should have special acquisition authorities, be staffed by experienced military and CIA personnel, have a budget separate from other agencies and activities within the National Foreign Intelligence Program, be protected by a special security compartment and operate under the personal direction of the President, Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence, according to the commission. 
Bring back the Defense Space Reconnaissance Program (DSRP)
During the 1980s and 1990s, NRO relied on the work and supplemental funding of the DSRP, which helped the agency meet unique military requirements for NRO satellite reconnaissance systems. These funds, totaling several hundreds of millions of dollars, paid for additional satellites or military-specific systems. But a reorganization ordered by Congress in 1994 led to the stripping of the DSRP budget and eventually dissolution of the program altogether. The commission believed that restoring this program would help revitalize the NRO.
Avoid Brain Drain
NRO leadership should jointly establish career paths to ensure that highly skilled and experienced NRO engineers stay with the agency and are not tempted to move on to other government or private sector opportunities.

Report of the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office


Congressional Oversight  

House Armed Services Committee           

Senate Committee on Appropriations


Former Directors  

History of NRO Directors


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Table of Contents

Founded: 1961
Annual Budget: Classified (Estimated $10 billion)
Employees: 3,000

National Reconnaissance Office
Carlson, Bruce

A retired general from the U.S. Air Force, Bruce Allen Carlson began serving as the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in June 2009. The NRO is in charge of launching and maintaining the nation’s spy satellites. Carlson had no background in intelligence or space, but was brought on to lead the budget-troubled NRO because he was a logistics and acquisition specialist. On April 18, 2012, Carlson announced his resignation effective July 20.

Born March 5, 1949, in Hibbing, Minnesota, Carlson moved with his family to Brainerd, Minnesota, in 1964. His father, Clifford Carlson, had retired from the Army and worked in the forest service.
Upon graduation from high school, Carlson attended junior college in Brainerd while planning to become an accountant. After his second year, he applied for financial aid at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, but was ineligible because his junior college was non-accredited. He turned the ROTC program for help, but they didn’t provide financial aid either. However, they did send him to a summer camp where he was given a ride in a T-33 jet that was designed to train air force pilots. He immediately lost interest in becoming an accountant and decided to become a fighter pilot. However, he did complete his accountancy degree, graduating in 1971.
Having also completed Duluth’s Air Force ROTC program, Carlson was commissioned a second lieutenant.
He completed his undergraduate pilot training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma. At Vance, Carlson was warned that he would not succeed if he did not meet for drinks once a week at the officers club. Because his Mormon beliefs rejecting drinking and smoking, Carlson declined. 
His next stop was to train for the F-4 fighter at Homestead AFB in Florida. In May 1973, Carlson was assigned to the 417th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Holloman AFB in New Mexico.
The following year he was transferred to Thailand to serve as a forward air controller and instructor pilot with the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron at the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base.
After being promoted to captain, Carlson returned to the states in October 1975 to be an OV-10 instructor pilot and flight examiner for the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron at Bergstrom AFB. Two years later he was an A-10 pilot and fighter weapons instructor pilot with the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Myrtle Beach AFB in South Carolina.
He studied at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada (1979) and earned a Master of Arts from St. Louis-based Webster University in 1980.
In May 1980, Carlson was made aide to General Bill Creech, the commander of Headquarters Tactical Air Command at Langley AFB in Virginia. Because Creech asked Carlson to sit in on all briefings and meetings, Carlson credits Creech with teaching him how to run a large organization.
As a major Carlson served as wing weapons officer for the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing and operations officer for the 17th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Shaw AFB in South Carolina.
For three years he was tactical systems requirements officer in the Office of Low Observables Technology, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, in Washington, DC.
Having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, Carlson attended the Naval War College from July 1988 to June 1989, before becoming director of advanced programs, Headquarters TAC, at Langley AFB.
During the 1990s—when he rose to colonel, then brigadier general and then major general—Carlson was vice commander of the 366th Wing, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho (1991-1993); senior military assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and senior military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon; commander of the 49th Fighter Wing (the first stealth fighter wing) at Holloman AFB in New Mexico; and director of global power programs, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, and later director of operational requirements, Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations, Air Force headquarters, in Washington, DC.
From January 2000 to May 2002, Carlson was director for force structure, resources and assessment (J-8) for the Joint Staff in Washington, DC. During this time he was promoted to lieutenant general.
After that he commanded the 8th Air Force stationed at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana until April 2005, at which time he also became the joint functional component commander for space and global strike at U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt AFB in Nebraska.
His last Air Force command, beginning in August 2005, placed him in charge of materiel command, located at Wright-Patterson AFMC in Ohio, overseeing development and purchasing of all Air Force technologies, except space systems, with a $59 billion budget and a staff of 74,000. During his stint with AFMC, there was controversy involving the competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS North America over the bidding to build a new Air Force refueling tanker. A $1.5 billion contract with Northrop Grumman was later cancelled.
Carlson retired from the Air Force as a four-star general on January 1, 2009, after more than 37 years of service. After retirement, Carlson joined the board of directors of EADS North America before taking over the National Reconnaissance Office.
As a pilot, Carlson logged more than 3,300 flying hours in ten different kinds of aircraft, although his favorite was the F-16
Carlson met his wife, Vicki, in high school. Honoring her parents’ request, he did not propose marriage to her until she graduated high school. At one minute after midnight that day, they became engaged. They married in June 1970 when he was 20 years old she was 19. The Carlsons have two sons and a daughter and nine grandchildren.
Bruce A. Carlson Biography (National Reconnaissance Office)
Bruce A. Carlson (Wikipedia)
Lange, Scott
Previous Director
 A native of Buffalo, NY, Scott F. Large has served as director of the National Reconnaissance Office and assistant to the secretary of the Air Force (Intelligence Space Technology) since October 2007. Large received a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering in 1979 from the University of Central Florida, majoring in electro-optics and semiconductor devices.
Before joining the government, he spent seven years in industry, during which time he was granted three patents in fiber optics technology. In 1986, Large joined the Central Intelligence Agency as a project management engineer in the Office of Development and Engineering developing advanced spacecraft payloads at the NRO. He held various senior development and systems engineering positions within the NRO’s Imagery Systems Acquisition and Operations Directorate through 1996. Also during this time, he served one year as the executive assistant to the director of the NRO. In 1997, he became deputy director of the Future Imagery Architecture Program.
In 1998, Large was appointed the deputy chief for programs within the CIA Directorate of Operations’ Technology Management Office. In this position, he helped administer a joint national program while assisting in the development of the program's strategic plan and program management process. In 2000, he was selected as director of the Clandestine Signals Intelligence Operations Group in the Office of Technical Collection within the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. While there, he led the development and execution of critical collection operations for the Intelligence Community. In September 2000, he became the deputy director of the Office of Technical Collection.
Large’s last CIA assignment began in September 2001 as the associate deputy director for science and technology. He returned to the NRO in July 2003 to serve as director of the Imagery Systems Acquisition and Operations Directorate until November 2006. Large then moved to director of the Source Operations and Management Directorate at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), where he served until April 2007 when he returned to the NRO to assume the position of NRO Principal Deputy Director, before moving up to NRO Director in October.