17 March 2011
NRO finds plenty of ways to burn through $15 billion annual budget
By Loring Wirbel


At a time when all other military operations are being asked to scale down by 8 to 10 percent to comply with a “reasonable” annual Pentagon budget in the realm of $500 billion (discounting ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan war costs), military space is as profligate as ever.  The biggest attention has been paid to the billion-dollar launches of robotic space planes from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force, even though the Air Force’s X-37B “space plane” is shrouded in secrecy.  But the most active client at Vandenberg and Patrick (Canaveral) Air Force Bases over the past year has been the nation’s largest intelligence agency by budget, the National Reconnaissance Office.

A half-dozen launches under NRO auspices have taken place in the past seven months with virtually no public notification, with at least three more NRO launches scheduled in 2011.  The broad nature of the intelligence programs managed by NRO is cited as the reason for the agency’s budget moving up to approximately $15 billion a year, eclipsing the budget of its closest contender, the National Security Agency, by several billion dollars, and that of the CIA by almost $10 billion.   Several gargantuan satellite systems have been updated in the last year, including Advanced Orion listening satellites, Improved Crystal optical spy satellites, White Cloud/Ranger Naval reconnaissance satellites, Satellite Data System communication and relay satellites, FIA 1/Lacrosse radar satellites, and a shadowy NRO research effort called Rapid Pathfinder.

These programs have been augmented by military satellite programs with a higher public profile, such as Global Positioning System 2E-1, Advanced EHF-1, and Space-Based Surveillance System 1.  While the costs of classified and open military space launches often can be obscured by budget transfers in the “black budget”, the fact that NRO’s overall budget is in the neighborhood of $15 billion, while the overall annual costs of military space are believed to be $70 billion, indicates that military space launches of satellites and space planes amount to tens of billions of dollars a year.

The highest-profile launches of late took place in April 2010, when DARPA launched a space glider, HLV-1, on the same day (April 22) that the Air Force made the first test launch of the X-37B, an orbiting robotic space plane.  The DARPA glider, which returned to Earth immediately, was conceived as an element of “Prompt Global Strike,” a series of conventional weapons which Strategic Command will use to conduct rapid-response warfare globally.  The X37-B, while of possible use in Prompt Global Strike, is intended as a lingering, orbiting resource.  The vehicle launched in April 2010 did not return to Earth until Dec. 3 of last year.  A second X-37B test vehicle was launched March 5, 2011, with no indication of when it would return to Earth.

NRO launches moved into a busy schedule as soon as Barack Obama took office, with a launch of an Advanced Orion signals-intelligence satellite, which listens in to civilian communications from space, taking place just before the inauguration on Jan. 18, 2009.  The Advanced Orion, also called Mentor, has been called the “largest satellite in the world” by NRO Director Bruce Carlson, with an antenna span in excess of 100 meters.  The fifth such satellite in this class was launched Nov. 21, 2010 from Cape Canaveral.  The prime contractor for this multi-billion-dollar satellite has never been revealed, though Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman are both believed to have major roles in subsystem development.

On Sept. 20, 2010, a synthetic-aperture radar satellite was launched by NRO on an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg.  This satellite was an element of the “Future Imagery Architecture” program and carried the name FIA Radar 1, though it is believed to be an upgrade of a radar program called Lacrosse.  These are intelligence satellites that augment traditional optical imaging satellites through their ability to see through cloud cover.

On January 20, 2011, NRO launched an optical spy satellite from Vandenberg on board a Delta IV rocket, a satellite called Improved Crystal.  This class of satellite is a follow-on to the “Keyhole” or KH-11 series, and resembles the Hubble Space Telescope in its overall size and shape.  Improved Crystal is the Block IV series of this satellite, with extremely advanced multi-spectral imaging capabilities.

Two of NRO’s biggest mysteries were launched in February and March.  On February 6, the agency launched a research satellite called Rapid Pathfinder Program from Vandenberg, on a smaller Minotaur IV rocket.  This satellite is believed to test new listening, imaging, and communication techniques which may be used on full-sized satellites in the future.  On March 11, the NRO launched its Satellite Data System 3 satellite, code-named Gryphon, on a Delta IV at Cape Canaveral.  Although SDS satellites are described as primarily communication satellites, they are often treated with greater secrecy than working spy satellites.  Most military communication satellites are run by Defense Information Systems Agency, but SDS satellites are run by the NRO.  Some analysts believe this is because their primary mission is to relay information from Improved Crystal, Advanced Orion, and other spy satellites to ground stations in Australia, England, and Colorado.

Other communication and analysis satellites are managed in a more public fashion.  Space-Based Surveillance System is a new network to watch other satellites in space, and the first SBSS 1 satellite, managed by Boeing, was launched Sept. 25, 2010 on a Minotaur IV rocket.  AEHF-1 is an Air Force Space Command satellite network, contracted by Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman, which replaces the Milstar program with a more advanced, high-bandwidth network run from geostationary orbit.  AEHF-1 is a substitute for a very ambitious and costly satellite system called Transformational Satellite or T-SAT, which was dreamed up by Donald Rumsfeld and former NRO Director Peter Teets, but canceled by a cost-conscious Congress.

There are more launch mysteries awaiting analysts in 2011.  The NRO L-34 launch on April 12 has not been identified, nor have two launches slated for fourth quarter – the L-39 in October, and the L-15 in December.  The latter launch uses a heavy-left Delta-IV, however, so it is likely to be a huge geosynchronous spy satellite.  The April launch will probably go into a “Molniya” style highly-inclined orbit, which may mean SDS 3, or a “Trumpet” listening spy satellite.  The October launch may well be another radar launch, like the one last September.  What is certain is that military space launches are taking place in one of the most rapid paces in U.S. history.  Despite the cancellation of some gold-plated programs like T-SAT, the Obama administration is overseeing a massive expansion of space intelligence.

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