The Coldest Warriors
Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn't exist.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 6 of 7)
”The agency brought to the business a group of people, like myself, who were former industrial people who knew how the process worked, who weren’t afraid of technology, and who were prepared to engage in a dialogue with the contractors to make the various choices,” retired CIA officer Bud Wheelon explains. Many of the NRO staff come from contractors, universities, or applied physics labs and know as much about spacecraft construction and operations as the contractors do. “When a decision had to be made, or a direction chosen…it was all done by the agency people and then it shifted to the contractors,” says Wheelon. The CIA is supposed to come up with breakthrough concepts to solve specific problems. The contractors add their own ideas and then develop the finished product. Insiders have characterized the contractors, the NRO, and its constituents as a very small, cozy group; some have described the relationship as incestuous. The prime contractors, in effect, are as dependent upon the NRO as the NRO is on them. ”Occasionally the companies would come up with new ideas and new approaches and would come in to offer some totally different way you could do something,” says intelligence veteran Bobby Inman. Usually there was enormous resistance, he says, describing the NRO attitude as “Stay with what we’re telling you to work on; don’t come and tell us about other things you could do.” He adds: “The companies were not reluctant to make end runs to higher places” to peddle their wares.
Not everyone at the NRO believes in the new world order. Former CIA director James Woolsey’s warning that the dead Soviet dragon has been replaced by a garden of poisonous snakes is taken as gospel, as is the notion that the dragon may not be dead. So what will the United States need to know into the 21st century?
Although the need to collect technical intelligence remains—monitoring missile tests in North Korea, for example—the new threat is moving, spreading, and becoming more devious. Terrorism and cyberwarfare, or information warfare, are high on the list of dangers over the horizon. In a new project called 20/20, the NRO is drawing on experts in academe and industry to predict what the world will look like 20 years hence. The idea is to create as clear a picture as possible not of mere trends but of new threats so that countermeasures can be readied.
New systems and spacecraft are needed. The Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program will make real-time imagery available to military forces in combat. The challenge is to get pictures to the troops and filter out all the irrelevant data. That’s the responsibility of the new National Imagery and Mapping Agency. And as the threat changes, the satellites will have to operate in new and different orbits.
An Integrated Overhead Sigint Architecture program is the signals intelligence equivalent of the imagery program. It will intercept communication between terrorist cells, pull in telemetry from ballistic missile test programs, and provide warning of nuclear tests. If the NRO’s Directorate of Signals Intelligence doesn’t have the right spacecraft (a Rhyolite successor, for example), then the Directorate of Advanced Science and Technology has to dream one up and ask potential contractors to submit proposals.
Thanks to dramatic advances in miniaturization, the imaging satellites themselves will become smaller, which will make them cheaper to build and to launch. The laws of physics will remain immutable: No high-resolution close-look telescope is going to fly in a package the size of a wastebasket. And since imaging satellites last only as long as their maneuvering fuel, it seems certain that new ways of changing their orbits, including the use of tiny ion thrusters, are under study.
It also seems certain that satellites are going to have upgraded infrared capability, high-definition radar for night and all-weather imaging, and the ability to stare at one spot. A telescope staring at a place on Earth from 22,300 miles out would have far better resolution than one on Earth looking 22,300 miles in the opposite direction. That’s because of the “bottom of the ocean effect”: There is far more distortion looking up at the world from the bottom of a swimming pool than there is looking at the bottom of the pool from a diving board. Staring at one place for days or weeks is not farfetched. A Hubble Space Telescope-sized optical system, looking down instead of out, should be able to do the job. The Hubble uses the same basic optics as its NRO cousins, Hexagon (or “Big Bird”—the KH-9) and Crystal, the old KH-11. All three satellites were sired by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. Perhaps the most telling sign that things have changed was the surprising award in early September of the FIA contract to Boeing, thereby ending a relationship with Lockheed that dated back to 1958. One reason cited for switching to Boeing was the need to contain costs. And civilian satellites with three-foot resolution offer the promise of round-the-clock satellite service to all potential users—like a kind of public utility. The NRO, for one, will never be the same.