The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO): Watching From Above


    1. What is the NRO?

    The National Reconnaissance Office is the agency within the US Intelligence Community directly responsible for the construction and launch of America’s reconnaissance satellites. It also processes and analyzes the intelligence gathered from those platforms for dissemination amongst the wider Intelligence Community.

    For most of its history, the NRO officially did not exist. And yet, it is by far one of the largest and best-funded of all the agencies within the Federal Government. Its mission is vital to the function of almost every other major three-letter agency that you can think of.

    Now that the United States and China find themselves on the cusp of a renewed Space Race, the NRO is certain to play a continuing role in shaping national security and defence policy in Washington well into the 21st century. 

    2. Symbology, Motto and Patches

    The NRO utilizes a typical US government rounded seal. A blue ring contains the wording “National Reconnaissance Office – United States of America” in dark gold lettering. In the center, a stylized satellite track in an eccentric orbit rings around a globe showing the North Atlantic seaboard and Western Europe. A light red dot signifies an orbital satellite. 

    Logo of the NRO

    The U.S. government officially registered this seal in September 1992 after finally acknowledging the existence of the NRO. Prior to this, however, the NRO seal went through several mutations. Because it was initially a covert division, the NRO was grouped into a cover organization through the Air Force: “The Office of Space Systems, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force”.

    When John McLucas, an early NRO director, left to become Secretary of the Air Force, staffers presented him with a plaque with the OSS – OSAF logo [source]. By the 1980’s, the emblem on classified briefings changed to reflect the office’s true name. By 1992, however, the current version was solidly in place. 

    The NRO’s motto is ‘Supra et Ultra’, or Above and Beyond. This motto does not appear on the National Reconnaissance Office seal.

    2.2 NRO Subdivision Patches

    NRO subdivisions have several patches for operation centers and Aerospace Data Facilities. The patch for the NRO Operations Center contains a Gandalf like figure who is convecting Emperor Palpatine style lighting over the North Atlantic and parts of Africa.

    2.3 Assorted Launch Patches of the NRO

    The NRO has several publicly known patches associated with launches. Perhaps the most curious of these patches is the “Blues Brother’s” patch, memorializing NRO Launch Number 7 which self-destructed a mere matter of seconds into its flight.

    NROL 7 Launch Patch

    National Reconnaissance Office launch patches can be slightly cheeky, like the above slogan that, “We’re on a Mission From DoD” (read: God). They are, indeed, unique and creative and reflect a slightly more jovial culture than it’s more stuffy aerospace counterparts at NASA.

    Assorted Launch Patches of the NRO
    In honor of Mr. Dan Potter, NRO employee, students at Cub Run Elementary School, where he volunteered, submitted this design. Representing Ursula Major, this patch is associated with Atlas II.

    3. Mission of the NRO

    The NRO is the US intelligence agency responsible for several key features of American reconnaissance efforts.

    • The NRO builds and designs American spy satellites.

    • The NRO helps to operate these satellites in conjunction with other Federal agencies.

    • The NRO is responsible for increasing US satellite intelligence capabilities.

    • The NRO provides MASINT, SIGINT, GEOINT and IMINT products to various consumers in the US Intelligence Community.

    • The main consumers of NRO products are the DIA, CIA, NSA, the NGA and the Secretary of Defence.

    • The NRO is one of the traditional Big Five agencies of the US Intelligence Community.

    4. A Comprehensive History of the NRO 

    Like many of its peers in the US Intelligence Community, the NRO is a direct product of the greatest strategic rivalry in human history. The frozen conflict which we euphemistically call the Cold War brought about a new scope and breadth to international competition, but also new and myriad ways in which war would be fought.

    To understand the impetus behind the formation of the NRO, one needs to understand the circumstances which hung over central and Eastern Europe like a damp carpet in the mid to late 1950’s. 

    4.1 The Iron Curtain

    It is difficult to impress on a modern audience, particularly a Western one, the colossal scale of suffocation caused by Stalinism. Winston Churchill’s proclamation at Fulton that an Iron Curtain had beset Europe was, to be sure, political theatrics, but it was also an accurate diagnosis of the sickness that had taken root in the Soviet Union in the late 1940’s. And with this solid barrier separating East and West, American and British strategic planners found themselves in a famine-like state for information about their new Communist adversary. 

    The first Soviet nuclear test, RDS-1 in 1949.

    To make matters worse, Soviet intelligence efforts on the US homeland began to return huge dividends. On 29 August, 1949, the Soviets detonated a 22 kiloton nuclear device in a remote facility on the Kazakh steppeland [source]. For several embarrassing days, the United States was unaware of the detonation.

    By pure chance, on 3 September, a specially modified B-29 Superfortress was conducting a routing flight between Misawa Air Force Base in Japan to Eilson Air Force Base in Alaska detected radioactive debris from the test [source]. 

    4.1.1 A Growing Necessity

    The modified B-29s, operated by the Air Force Weather Service, flew clandestine missions on behalf of the Air Force Office of Atomic Energy-1 (AFOAT-1), an organization which you may know today as the Air Force Technical Applications Center [source].

    The specially designed radiological sensors on the B-29 routinely picked up radiological signatures on these flights over the northern Pacific (111 times to be exact). All had perfectly natural explanations.

    This time, however, the B-29 sniffed out a totally different form of radioactive debris. U.S. officials scrambled additional test flights to confirm the findings.

    Scientists, researchers, contractors and British government consultants were spun up. It was only on 23 September that Washington finally announced that the Soviets had built and tested their very own atomic bomb [source]. 

    A WB-29 in the process of decontamination from radioactive material, early 1950’s.

    The world suddenly awoke to a new albeit horrifying strategic reality. Just as it is difficult to impress on a western audience the scale of information asymmetry between the United States and Soviet Union, it is even more so difficult to convey the tremendous levels of mistrust and fear which governed that relationship. This leads us to some necessary observations:

    • The closest modern analog which we can call upon today is perhaps the bellicosity of North Korea.

    • This is a state so hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world that the only reliable information about it could come from geospatial surveillance platforms.

    • It is a profoundly dangerous situation to have two major superpowers at each other’s throats with nuclear tipped daggers.

    • Rivalry is even more dangerous when those same superpowers are unaware of the thousands of nuclear tipped daggers hidden in the others’ hands. 

    4.2 The Early Stages

    In many ways, the Soviet Union was nothing new. The world had contended before with totalitarianism. What separated the USSR from other explicitly despotic regimes was its robust counterintelligence apparatus. Moscow achieved this through four primary methods:

    • Stalin’s paranoia and manic personality created a titanic system of surveillance aimed at the average Soviet citizen. Adapting it for counter-espionage purposes was a simple task [source].
    • Soviet authorities actively prevented Soviet citizens from conversing with foreign visitors [source].
    • The Soviet military simply refused to release any technical data or specifications about its military hardware. Details about its weapons systems were closely guarded state secrets [source]. 
    • Moscow devoted an enormous amount of resources to repressing information, controlling the press and exerting Communist party domination over academia [source].  

    Human intelligence operations in the Soviet Union were complex, laborious operations that ran up against the immovable force that was the NKVD (later KGB). American and British spy masters had dwindling options. An early solution to the gargantuan problem of Soviet counterintelligence was high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

    America’s first crack at the problem came in the form of the U-2 Dragonlady. A joint effort by the CIA and the Air Force, the first U-2 aircraft was produced in just under 8 months, a truly spectacular turnaround time for Lockheed. 

    4.2.1 The Problem With Air Reconnaissance

    The speed at which the aircraft was developed is a testament to the immediate necessity of timely and actionable intelligence about Soviet military facilities and systems. Expectations that the U-2 could safely operate over the Soviet Union came crashing down when Pilot Francis Gary Powers was knocked out of the Siberian sky on the 1st of May, 1960 by a S-75 Dvina Surface to Air Missile. 

    So much for the Dragon Lady. Lockheed, the Air Force and the CIA quickly pivoted, developing the A-12 Archangel/Oxcart and its remarkable variant, the SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 was an effort to correct the vulnerabilities of the U-2 to Soviet missile defenses. The solution was simple, albeit expensive.

    Instead of wasting valuable weight and space with missile countermeasures, the SR-71 would avoid Soviet missiles by simply speeding up and outrunning the threat.

    The Wreckage of FG Power’s U-2 Dragon Lady

    And yet, it seems as if there was a nagging tension in the minds of US military officials and intelligence planners that the Soviets could pull a trick from their sleeves and shoot down this aircraft as well.

    This risk of embarrassment was too high and the risk of losing priceless technology to the USSR was too costly. Washington did not want or need another Gary Powers. 

    4.2.2 Looking to the Stars

    The answer to this pressing conundrum came from a totally unexpected source. In the early 1940’s, the great Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame), penned a strikingly prescient piece titled “Peacetime Uses for V-2: V-2 for Ionosphere Research? [source]. Clarke writes:

    A rocket which can reach a speed of 8 km/sec parallel to the earth’s surface would continue to circle it for ever in a closed orbit; it would become an artificial satellite. V2 can only reach a third of this speed under the most favourable conditions…”

    Clark continued by stating the below:

    It would thus be possible to have a hundredweight of instruments circling the earth perpetually outside the limits of the atmosphere and broadcasting information as long as the batteries lasted. Since the rocket would be in brilliant sunlight for half the time, the operating period might be indefinitely prolonged by the use of thermocouples and photo-electric elements.

    Following the closure of the Second World War, the United States military had captured a sizable stock of V-2 rockets, a large portion of which were given to the Naval Research Laboratory.

    And to be sure, this effort was certainly aided by the sudden and inexplicable influx of German speaking scientists who understood how the V-2 actually operated (see Operation Paperclip) [source]. The NRL’s newfound German specialists would suddenly become very useful.

    4.2.3 The Viking Sounding Rocket

    The first American effort at satellite delivery systems was a wholecloth plagiarism of the German V-2. Even so, it was a terrible knock off. The Viking Sounding Rockets were smaller and less powerful than the V-2 and suffered from unforeseen problems that arose during testing.

    Eventually, however, they perfected the platform. The Viking program helped to iron out the future design features of NASA rocketry and demonstrated the practicality of placing satellites into orbit. 

    4.2.4 First Steps with Vanguard

    The NRL pushed forward with its atmospheric research programs with the Vanguard rocket family. Vanguard, as the name suggests, was meant to be the first American orbital launch vehicle. The program was thus intimately linked to the US Space Program’s later efforts to place satellites into orbit.

    With a total of 11 launches, 8 were failures of varying degrees. The US may well have kept at it, steadily improving the vehicle until they could adequately place a small artificial satellite in orbit.

    Vanguard TV-3 explodes as it falls back to the launch pad.

    The timeframe for a satellite launch platform changed when the Soviets placed the first artificial satellite in orbit. America realized it needed a reliable orbital launch vehicle and it needed it fast. The US made an effort to adapt the Vanguard program with Vanguard TV-3. This launch ended within a matter of seconds as its thrusters failed and sputtered out. Unfortunately, TV-3 fell back to the launch pad and went up in a great plume of propellant fire.

    4.2.5 Explorer and Redstone

    Due to the failure of the NRL’s Vanguard program, the US pivoted to the Explorer program. Directly utilizing the Juno I rocket (a variant of the Jupiter sounding rockets of the Redstone program), Juno 1 placed a 30 pound package into orbit. America had entered into the Space Age, and the future mission of the NRO crossed the line of science fiction into science reality. 1958 was the pivotal year in the early history of the NRO, which would come into being not 2 years later.

    The NRO would have two main avenues of orbital launch options to work with:

    • The US Navy’s Vanguard rocket

    • The US Air Force’s WS-117L reconnaissance program using the Thor-Agena launch vehicle.

    5. GRAB: The First SIGINT Space Platform

    In March of 1958, an NRL engineer, Reid Mayo, devised an idea to implant a radar detector into a Vanguard launch vehicle [source]. Mayo convinced Howard Lorenzen, the NRL electronic countermeasures lead, to green light the project. The proposal made its way up to President Eisenhower, who approved the idea by August 1959. Under the codename ‘Tattletale’, the project was billed to the public under the acronym GRAB. The Galactic Radiation and Background project was of course a civilian cover given to what was supposed to be a research project meant to measure space radiation. Naturally, its military application was far more useful [source].

    The GRAB Device

    GRAB was essentially a receiver that detected pulsed-radar beams from Soviet missile sites. When GRAB detected a radar beam, it sent a signal to a “hut” located in US aligned countries. The data was transposed onto tapes in these huts. The catch was that these sites needed to be located within visual range of the satellite. This was obviously very limiting. GRAB later developed into Poppy, a more robust means of mapping out Soviet air defence networks.

    6. CORONA: The First IMINT Space Platform

    Plans for an image intelligence satellite were in motion as early as January 1956. Over the course of 2 years, multiple meetings took place in the White House between the Air Force, the NRL and Dr. Richard Bissell, Eisenhower’s staff assistant [source]. CORONA was the first attempt at snapping reconnaissance photos from space using analog technology. Because of the technological limitations of the time, the CORONA system was enormously complicated. Simply getting the satellite into orbit was a challenge. 12 launches failed outright [source]. On the 18th of August 1960 however, CORONA finally took off. And the results it returned were spectacular:

    • This single mission generated more film than the entire U-2 program [source]

    • CORONA captured 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory [source]

    The first CORONA missions used a KH-1 (Keyhole) camera that had a ground resolution of 40 feet. Later CORONA satellites carried Keyhole cameras that had 10 feet of ground resolution. Ultimately, the program continued until 1972, reflecting its success [source]. CORONA revealed something that human intelligence operatives in the USSR could only dream of uncovering. The Soviets had a lot fewer missiles than they were letting on.

    The so called “missile gap” was much more narrow than Washington had believed. Until its closure in 1972, CORONA allowed the CIA to keep highly accurate accounting of Soviet ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines and air defense sites. Many of the reports are still accessible today via the CIA’s FOIA Reading Room. More crucially, the CORONA and the NRO were instrumental in assuring the White House that the Soviets were abiding by arms control and arms reduction treaties well into the 1980’s [source].

    7. The NRO is Born

    The arrival of the Kennedy Administration brought wide reaching changes to the US Intelligence Community. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was a man of industry. He cut his teeth as a manager in the Ford Motor Company, experience which taught him the cold realities of organizational management. McNamara wanted to bring those lessons into the Pentagon [source].

    The first step in that process directly led to the formation of the NRO. Initially, the National Reconnaissance Office was a collection of multiple space based reconnaissance programs rolled into a single agency. The Navy, Air Force and CIA all had separate aims and needs to be fulfilled by that space based reconnaissance.

    In September of 1961, McNamara and CIA Director Alan Dulles reached an understanding on establishing a National Reconnaissance Office [source].

    7.1 Organizational Chain of Command

    The NRO would be placed under a joint administration of Dr. Richard Bissell and Dr. Joseph Charyk, Under Secretary of the Air Force [source]. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1962, Bissell quietly left the intelligence community, leaving Charyk the sole director. From the very beginning, questions arose over the place of the NRO amongst the wider intelligence ecosystem. The US Government’s space reconnaissance programs were originally the purview of the Air Force, and more specifically, ran by a civilian political appointee. While this allowed for easy integration into the Intelligence Community, it created unresolved questions about the chain of command. To quote directly from Dr. Bruce Berkowitz:

    Putting the CIA’s space system activities into a Defense Department organization did create turf issues and chain of command questions. Should the Secretary of Defense control a CIA program as part of the NRO? Making the NRO part of the Intelligence Community created even more issues. Should the Director of Central Intelligence control a Defense Department agency as part of the Intelligence Community? This issue continues even today, with the Director of National Intelligence filling the role that the DCI formerly played

    The NRO straddled an awkward position. Its initial offices were located in the room 4C1000 of the Pentagon [source]. Anyone who has ever served in the US Intelligence Community (USIC) can immediately recognize the telltale signs of Washingtonian turf wars. Petty though it may seem, civil servants patrol the lines of their own domain from the military for a good reason. Civilian control over the military is a hallmark feature of American public life.

    8. The NRO Becomes Public

    In January of 1971, the New York Times ran an article titled “Foreign Policy Disquiet Over Intelligence Setup”. This thrust of the article claimed that President Nixon had become irritated over the immense amount of financial wealth spent on intelligence collection. The Times writes that the “National Reconnaissance Office spends…$1 billion yearly flying reconnaissance airplanes and lofting or exploiting the satellites that constantly circle the earth“. How exactly the Times became aware of the National Reconnaissance Office is not known, but this is the first attested mention of the NRO anywhere in the public domain [source].

    The 1971 SALT Treaty created a debate within the USIC over the need to keep the NRO a secret. The treaty, euphemistically referred to the National Reconnaissance Office as “national technical means” [source]. By 1978 however, the jig was up. Any pretense of secrecy evaporated when William Kampiles, a former CIA employee, pilfered the user manual for the KH-11 and sold it to a KGB agent in Athens [source]. In 1986, a Naval Intelligence Support Center analyst, Samuel Loring Morison, sold a KH-11 image to Janes Defense Weekly.

    In both of their trials, government prosecutors were forced to disclose the office from where the secret material had originated [source]. In September 1992, the CIA recommended to the Pentagon that it formally declassify the existence of the NRO. By then, it was somewhat of a moot point [source].

    9. Modern Organizational Structure

    The modern NRO is led by a Director, followed by a Principal Deputy Director and Deputy Director. The Office of Space Launch and Special Communications Office are independent sections within in the agency, reporting to the Directors. This structure came about after a period of consolidation in 1992 [source].

    The NRO further consists of 10 separate Directorates:
    • Advanced Systems and Technology Directorate (ASTD)

    AST is the body responsible for developing and producing new systems and technologies for the NRO

    • Business Plans and Operations Directorate (BPOD)

    The BPO controls the purse strings of the NRO, allocating budget where needed and liaising with Congress

    • Communications Systems Acquisition Directorate (COMM)

    COMM manages the communications networks of the NRO and provides access to those networks to partner organizations or states

    • Ground Enterprise Directorate (GED)

    GED manages a physical ground system designed to convey information to end users across the planet

    • Geospatial Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate (GEOINT)

    GEOINT manages the geospatial intelligence platforms of the NRO, providing the raw product for further analysis and exploitation by other agencies

    • Signals Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate (SIGINT)

    SIGINT manages the signals intelligence platforms of the NRO, providing the raw product for further analysis and exploitation by other agencies

    • Management Services and Operations (MSO)

    The logistical hub of the NRO, you can think of MSO as the workplace operations specialists of the NRO

    • Mission Operations Directorate (MOD)

    The MOD operates the 24/7 NROC facility (NRO Operations Center) by monitoring the status of all NRO satellites and assets. MOD heavily influences the operations of US Strategic Command

    • Mission Integration Directorate (MID)

    MID reaches out to the end users of NRO systems in order to better gauge and understand what is needed of the NRO

    • Systems Engineering Directorate (SED)

    SED is responsible for all systems engineering concerns across the NRO and any issue which may arise that needs the attention of a highly skilled engineering team

    10. Later Missions of the NRO

    The National Reconnaissance Office was instrumental in the American victory in the Cold War, in that it allowed the United States to temper its arms construction response to Soviet aggrandizement of their own arsenals. As a result of this however, the NRO was specifically geared towards arms control verification efforts. Accordingly, this limitation came to light during the First Gulf War in 1991. One of the major complaints that General Schwarzkopf communicated to Congress about the intelligence provided by the NRO was that battle damage assessments were often far too conservative. These estimates led Coalition commanders to slow down the progress of their advance [source]. Clearly the NRO needed a readjustment.

    10.1 Global Communications Network

    Since that first engagement with Saddam Hussein in 1991, the NRO vastly improved its capabilities. Much of it is classified, so details are sparse. However, the public is generally aware of a new communications relay, the Special Operations Communications (SOCOMM) system, which operates alongside other highly encrypted National Reconnaissance Office communications satellites [source]. These systems meant that the NRO held an important war in the Global War on Terror and keeping special forces operators in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in a secure line of communication.

    10.2 International Partnerships

    The National Reconnaissance Office is hosted by partner nations that similarly benefit from intelligence sharing with the United States. Thus, the NRO is present at RAF Menwith Hill, Harrogate as well as Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap in Alice Springs [source]. These partnerships are of use to not only the US but also its partner states. The UK and Australia are able to piggyback off of the SIGINT capabilities provided by the NRO.

    10.3 The Sentient

    Made public in 2019, the Sentient is a highly classified “artificial brain” program under development by the NRO. Beginning in 2010, the Sentient is described as an “omnivorous” analysis tool that utilizes multi-INT (multiple intelligence). According to an NRO document, the Sentient chiefly:

    • Allows for “automated tasking and collection”.

    • Provides “situational awareness based on observed activity and historical intelligence to model and anticipate potential courses of actions of adversaries”.

    • Frees “analysts to focus on reasoning and situational understanding instead of data search and correlation”.

    11. Conclusion

    In Summation, the National Reconnaissance Office was a mainstay of the intelligence ecosystem during the Cold War. It was born from the unlikely source of the Nazi V-2 program and metamorphosed into the driving force behind the US Space Program. In turn, it vastly enhanced the ability of US policy planners to adequately respond to the Soviet menace. Since then, it has become a leading force of driving space based modernization of intelligence for the military and US strategic partners. Going into the 21st century, it will surely play a centripetal role.

    Alec Smith
    Alec Smith
    Alec Smith is a graduate of the MSC International Relations program of the University of Aberdeen and holds an LLB in Global Law from Tilburg University. He works in the private sector in field investigations and security.

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