NRO changes architectures to speed data to warfighters

Cloud storage would ensure networked personnel had rapid access to data

Although budgets are being reduced, the National Reconnaissance Office is still managing a number of satellite launches while changing its architectures so data can be more readily accessed by soldiers in the field. The agency is also moving towards more open architectures, which will be less expensive to administer than the separately managed, “stovepiped” programs of years past.

NRO, like many related agencies, is making dramatic revisions to its operations as the DOD asks service providers to make more data available to troops who are on the tactical edge of the battlefield. During a speech at the GEOINT 2011 Symposium in San Antonio, Texas, NRO Director Bruce Carlson told a standing-room-only crowd that the biggest benefits from geospatial intelligence comes when it’s delivered to those who need it immediately.

They don’t need precise information; it’s better to quickly know that something’s around the corner than to get more precise information at a later time, he said. However, soldiers at the so-called tip of the spear still have only limited access to this data.

“Ninety-five percent of our GEOINT data and 90 percent of the signal intelligence produced for NSA are classified at levels that are easy to distribute in the field, it’s not top secret. But only 5 percent of the soldiers in the field have access to it,” Carlson said.

One of the technical challenges for the agency is to make the move to the cloud, which stores data on servers so it can be accessed by networked personnel regardless of where they’re located or what connection they are using. NRO has been moving forcefully to make the architectural and technical changes that will make this transition possible.

“We want to migrate to the cloud,” Carlson said. “The biggest impediment for a move to the cloud is the amount of legacy software that was built in stovepipes over the years.”

Stovepiped programs were established for good reasons, but they need large staffs that are dedicated to a program. Carlson has been working to move to more open architectures so these dedicated teams can work on a range of programs.

“We’ve gone from 256 stovepiped systems down to four major programs, and we’d like to reduce that number,” Carlson said.

Shifting from proprietary projects to those that can be managed by a range of personnel who are well versed in standards will also help NRO provide more services as the military enters an era where budget cutting is a dominant part of strategic planning. The agency was a key player in recent budget cutting efforts.

“The NRO, despite our size, was one of the largest donors in the last cuts that were made,” Carlson said. “We cut a great deal without impacting our core capability.”

NRO is searching for more areas that can be trimmed without major impact. An acquisition study began recently, with the goal of examining nonrecurring expenses that can be reduced without impacting the production line.

However, Carlson noted that 60 percent of what goes up on satellites is funded by science and technology. That means that the biggest area for potential savings will come by eliminating head counts. If facilities are closed to reduce head counts and other expenses, foreign sites will be the initial targets. It costs as much as 50 percent more to operate an overseas facility than a comparable location in the United States, he said.

Although tight budgets will force tough decisions on cutbacks, it won’t override the necessity of providing more geospatial intelligence data for warfighters. NRO plans to launch four satellites in four months during 2012. That’s an aggressive schedule, though it’s a bit less active than 2011, when six satellites were launched in seven months.

When these satellites are being developed, they must remain at the leading edge. Carlson noted that the agency must continue to take risks. But those risks must be addressed by risk management programs that address both known risks and those that arise unexpectedly.

“We can’t eliminate risk, it’s what makes us successful,” Carlson said. “When we’ve failed, and failed big, it’s been when we talked ourselves into projects that didn’t include risk management.”

About the Author

Terry Costlow is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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