Opening Up the NRO

During a 30-minute presentation, Pete Muend, director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, showcased intelligence products made possible by commercial imagery and shared NRO’s biggest challenges.

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The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) historically was one of the most closed and secretive intelligence agencies in the United States. In 2018, however, the organization took a major leap toward increased transparency and modernization when it inherited from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) the job of acquiring commercial satellite imagery for the broader Intelligence Community (IC). Since then, the NRO has established itself as one of the most coveted dance partners for commercial providers of remote sensing capabilities.

Those providers had a unique chance to learn about NRO’s commercial remote sensing achievements and opportunities during a keynote address delivered Monday afternoon in the Government Hub at GEOINT 2022.

During a 30-minute presentation to an audience packed with commercial members of the GEOINT Community, Pete Muend, director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, showcased intelligence products made possible by commercial imagery; shared NRO’s biggest challenges, requirements, and priorities with regard to commercial partnerships; and discussed current and future contracting opportunities for legacy and aspiring partners alike.

“Increasingly, our commercial partners are a really and truly integrated part of the overall capabilities that we bring to bear,” Muend said in his remarks, during which he explained NRO’s strategy with regard to commercial remote sensing data. “Our acquisition strategy…[is] to be able to buy what we can and only build what we must. For us, that means if a commercial provider is able to provide a certain set of capabilities, we’re going to look there first.”

The capability that NRO most covets right now, Muend noted, is “high-resolution point, area, and rapid-revisit global coverage.” “Our requirements are reflective of that, and I’m happy to say that our commercial providers are definitely keeping pace,” he said.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Ukraine, where commercial imagery furnished by the United States to Ukrainian forces has made a significant impact on the ground.

“NRO commercial providers have been collecting data for several months over the Ukraine region, both before Russia invaded and certainly throughout the ongoing crisis,” reported Muend, who said NRO through its commercial partners—Maxar, Planet, and BlackSky—has collected “millions and millions of square kilometers” of electro-optical imagery of Ukraine and Russia. “As a result of those actions we have added scope and value to many of our contracts, and in many cases added or exercised a crisis clause to enable enhanced responsiveness on a 24/7 basis.”

And it’s not just electro-optical imagery. NRO also has been acquiring and sharing commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and radio frequency (RF) detections, both of which represent future opportunities for commercial providers that are seeking NRO contracts—in particular, commercial RF, which will be the subject of NRO’s next broad industry solicitation.

No matter what type of source data they provide, commercial providers can expect a few important things from NRO contracts, according to Muend. One, for example, is increased flexibility. “We continue to intend to award multiple contracts with flexible contract mechanisms to be able to onramp new providers and new capabilities as they become available,” he said.

Commercial providers also should be prepared for increased focus on ground architecture and cybersecurity. “Cybersecurity is and remains a big deal,” Muend said of the latter, once again emphasizing flexibility as a key value. “We definitely recognize it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. We don’t want to turn our commercial partners into classified government systems. That’s not the point or intent. But we do want to have a structured approach.”

More than 60 years after it was established as a secret government agency, and 30 years after its existence was declassified to the public, NRO remains a black box to many in the GEOINT Community. Thanks to its increased prioritization of commercial products and relationships, however, its future promises to be far less secretive and far more collaborative.

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