In May, the National Reconnaissance Office announced the award of three contracts to private-sector companies for commercial imagery. It’s something the agency would like to do more of, said its director.
“Certainly we are looking for more commercial services, Chris Scolese said, during a discussion Thursday with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “We kind of have a motto of ‘buy what we can, build what we must.’ But really what it comes down to is the commercial market has really grown. And we’re seeing a lot of capability out there that the commercial companies are providing.”
Looking to the private sector to provide satellite imagery, he said, can be less costly but equally valuable than what the NRO might do with its own assets, Scolese said. It also means the NRO can direct resources towards intelligence gathering that’s important to the warfighter but has no commercial value.
“It … allows us to focus on those things … that are critically important that have either no commercial value at all, but have incredible intelligence value, that we need to go off and do,” he said. “And oftentimes, those are extremely complex systems that would be very expensive to develop and therefore … the lack of commercial interest in them.”
Right now, Scolese said, NRO’s relationships with the three companies it signed to contracts in May are going well. But he said the NRO is looking forward to bringing in new entrants and new capabilities, and that the agency has a plan for that.
“About yearly we’re going to … go off and ask for commercial companies to come in with their ideas so that we can engage early, prior to having to award of contract, so they can understand what the government’s needs are and we can understand what their capabilities are,” he said. “When it comes time to go off and have a contract like we have for electro-optical imagery, for radar, they’ll be ready and we’ll be ready.”
Commercial imagery isn’t the only place NRO has opted to work with partners. Launch is another such area. The U.S. continues to launch capabilities into space from both the Eastern and Western Ranges, which include locations such as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
But the NRO has also now partnered with New Zealand to launch smaller assets into space and will soon work with the U.K. on air-launching assets as well. Scolese said it gives his agency more flexibility as it tries to proliferate the number of assets it has in orbit.
“Having the capability to launch pretty much from almost anywhere in the world gives us great flexibility,” he said. “It adds to our resilience, because we’re not relying on just one or two launch bases. It allows us to reconstitute if we want to do that. It gives us a greater flexibility because we now have the opportunity to sort of pick launch bases.”
Also, he said, launching from locations like New Zealand or the U.K. has another added benefit as well.
“I think it sends a message to the world that we really value our partnerships with our international communities,” he said.