Madison Ruppert, Contributor
The United States’ National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is the shadowy government agency tasked with maintaining and operating a massive system of spy satellites in orbit around the Earth and conducting surveillance of various targets around the globe.
Keep in mind; this is the same NRO which has been accused of illegally spying on Americans (along with the National Security Agency (NSA)) and which is referred to by some as, “One of the most secretive agencies in the federal government.”
In a new budget document for this fiscal year, obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on August 22, 2012 by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), we learn of some of the many technologies employed by the NRO along with those they seek to acquire and develop in the near future.
Unfortunately, very little of the document is actually available to read since major sections of the budget justification are redacted in their entirety or so heavily redacted that no relevant information can be gleaned from them.
“Allowing for the fact that perhaps 90% of the 450 page budget document remains classified, it is still possible to glean at least fragmentary insight into the current state of the NRO,” wrote Aftergood for the FAS blog Secrecy News.
The NRO has been quite a shadowy agency since it was started in 1961 with Wired’s Danger Room writing that the NRO “has maintained round-the-clock orbital surveillance with a classified arsenal of satellites, reportedly including Keyhole camera-sats, downward-scanning Lacrosse space radars and signals intelligence spacecraft with giant arrays for sucking up communications from Earth.”
The heavily redacted document, originally from February 2011 and approved for release on August 21, 2012, reveals that all of this technology is not enough in the eyes of the NRO.
The NRO is apparently seeking to expand that array of satellites and also gain the ability to rapidly launch and reposition sensors in orbit in order to keep up with fast-moving targets on the ground.
In the document the NRO refers to this capability of “temporal responsiveness,” and the document indicates that they will “analyze other innovative space lift concepts and new entrants for potential launch of NRO payloads, including reusable launch vehicles” in 2012.
The “reusable launch vehicles” likely will be somewhat like the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, manufactured by Boeing, which has undergone two long-duration spaceflights thus far.
Another goal revealed in the NRO’s redacted document is the deployment of a system capable of providing “intelligence data to warfighters in the field using mobile devices.” Seeing as the various branches of the armed forces already use handheld terminals called “Rover” terminals to download video from drones overhead, it is hardly a leap to imagine the NRO developing the technology allowing soldiers to download satellite imagery in close to real time as well.
Another focus is increasing concern with the tracking of naval vessels with the document stating that the NRO seeks to “enhance the detection and tracking of maritime vessels.” According to Danger Room, currently possessed sensors likely are capable of meeting this challenge if computer processing is upgraded.
Danger Room asserts that the NRO likely didn’t have the sheer amount of computing horsepower required to comb through immense amounts of image data in order to pick out the signatures of ships before now, an assertion which is somewhat presumptuous in my opinion.
The goals of the NRO over the long term are even more grandiose than those outlined above. The NRO seeks to be able to “use multiple and different sensor types against the same target,” which would not only require multiple satellites with coordinated orbits but also coordinated cameras and other sensors like radar or an electronic eavesdropping apparatus.
In Congressional testimony in 2008, then-director of the NRO, Scott Large, stated that this type of technology can “exponentially increase the value of the intelligence.”
The NRO is also seeking to allow future satellites to “take advantage of massive data sets, multiple data sources and high-speed machine processing to identify patterns without a prior knowledge or pattern definition.” This appears to say that they are developing a kind of rudimentary artificial intelligence to process data.
Obviously all of this requires a huge amount of next-generation computing power, leading the NRO to seek out “carbon nano-tube memory” along with “third-generation, long-duration” lithium ion batteries and “next-generation, high-efficiency solar cells.”
Danger Room seems to think that these goals are unrealistic but given the sheer amount of funds which can be poured into programs like these, I’m not going to dismiss their aims as fanciful just yet.
While the thought of a kind of all-seeing eye in the sky conducting surveillance around the clock is far from pleasant, we must also consider the massive money being spent on this technology which we don’t even have to spend. Personally, I find it just as unpleasant to think about all of the people who could be housed and fed if we stopped programs like this and redirected the funds to the American people. Of course, as I regularly point out, we have no money to spend either way but so long as we’re putting Americans on the hook for debt we might as well use it for something positive.
This article first appeared at End the Lie.