Tue. May 28th, 2024

NRO expands commercial partnerships

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May16,2024

Leaders of the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government agency responsible for designing, building, launching and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites, often cite their commitment to commercial purchases.

“Buy what we can and build what we must” is the agency’s long-standing strategy, NRO Director Chris Scolese said in 2022 when the agency awarded contracts worth $4 billion over a decade to BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet. The Earth-observation contracts, awarded under NRO’s Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) program, were among the largest commercial prizes in the intelligence agency’s history, said Pete Muend, director of the NRO Commercial Systems Program Office (CSPO). NRO also purchases rides to orbit for classified payloads through the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket program.

To better understand NRO’s approach to commercial purchases, SpaceNews caught up with Muend. Before helping to establish CSPO in 2018, Muend directed NRO’s Commercial Geospatial Intelligence Activity, a joint NRO-National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency initiative focused on DEBRA WERNER commercial geospatial intelligence capabilities.

What do you mean by the words, “Buy what we can and build what we must”? For example, does “buy” mean buy commercial products or services?

Muend: Our approach to commercial capabilities, products, and services is straightforward and captured well in that motto. How we do that can manifest itself in a number of different ways. Certainly, through my office, it’s buying commercial data as a service, such as imagery, radar imagery, and commercial RF remote sensing data. But it also includes other things like launch services or cloud data services, products and tools that allow us to leverage the cost-effectiveness and innovation that the industry can bring to bear. It allows us to focus our other resources on the most sensitive and difficult missions, where our adversaries are always trying to stay ahead, and we’re trying to stay ahead of them by using the best of what’s available with world-class technology. That includes missions that don’t have any sort of commercial demand outside the U.S. government, where we’re the only user of that data. But that approach, which is manifested sometimes in buying the data and services and sometimes just in purchasing products, does feed into the larger diversified architecture, the most capable, diverse and resilient overhead constellation that we’re putting into orbit and, frankly, that the world’s ever seen.

How is the “Buy what we can” sentiment incorporated into the acquisition planning process? For example, are system specifications for requests for proposals written with this goal in mind?

Our approach to commercial capabilities is fully incorporated into the larger acquisition process. Often, that shapes how the RFP is drafted and the language we use—a couple examples to point out.

The Rapid Acquisition of Small Rockets contract allowed the NRO to explore new opportunities for launching small satellites through a streamlined commercial approach. We awarded a number of launch opportunities through that platform. In other cases, we can and have bought entire systems and adopted or adapted them for our purposes. Obviously, that allows us access to different, broader and ever-changing commercial technologies and landscapes that otherwise we’d have to develop ourselves.

Inside of our office, the big example is the EOCL contracts. That was a great manifestation of buying what we can and building what we must. We went through a very deliberate analysis of alternatives and allocation process to be able to look to commercial where we were confident commercial could meet those requirements. We were able to formalize a program and longterm budget around that and awarded three contracts to three providers. They were some of the largest commercial contracts NRO has ever awarded: $4 billion over 10 years.

The EOCL contracts were part of that larger process where we considered what commercial could take on and where we weren’t confident that the industry capability was going to be there. That led to other systems that we continue to develop in-house. That has been a great manifestation and a long-term commitment of looking to commercial where we were confident we could depend on it. Of course, we also have needs where that wasn’t necessarily the case. We have very difficult, stressing missions that we need to satisfy across the NRO. We continue to do that as well.

Another example started off with our Strategic Commercial Enhancement contracts for radar, initially to explore the utility of radar, to understand commercial companies’ capabilities and to get our hands on the data, explore mission utility and use the data as well. That is seeing exceptional success and providing meaningful capability and mission utility. We’ve been able to scale that up over time. Now, across the executive branch, we’re having a thorough discussion in terms of whether commercial radar is something that we should formalize into a longer-term construct, similar to what we did with EOCL

What products or services would be impossible or difficult to buy commercially?

The commercial industry and its capabilities are always changing, so that’s a very dynamic answer. We have to ensure we’re agile on our end to leverage some of those evolving technologies and new capabilities.

There are a couple areas, and I don’t want to get into specifics, but there are areas of the market that there’s little or no incentive for industry to pursue certain products or services. With that said, that is always changing. Commercial is always improving their capabilities in various aspects. We do have to be open-minded and make sure we challenge ourselves to leverage and incorporate those commercial capabilities everywhere we can. Of course, where we can’t, we continue to build out the technologies and capabilities on the government side.

What are the obstacles to expanding your use or purchase of commercial products and services?

I would point to two things. One is more cultural. That goes to the integration of commercial capabilities into the government architectures. We are working diligently and deliberately across the NRO and certainly with our mission partners and functional managers and combatant commands to integrate the commercial capabilities that we have on contract, for example, into the larger enterprise architectures, so they can be used and incorporated into assessments and those sorts of things across the Intelligence Community just as easily as the data coming from other government systems and national systems. We are working hard on that. But certainly, there are challenges. Some of these commercial capabilities are a little bit different than some of the systems that intelligence community analysts are used to using. It is a challenge to make sure that as we bring those systems on board, they are truly integrated in the enterprise architecture and utilized for all the value that they can potentially bring to bear.

Another item I would point to is foreign influence and funding. As we work collectively across the commercial sector, we consistently remind companies to be careful where they take money from, as they’re getting either private equity or venture capital funding to help create some of those innovative capabilities. Of course, we want them to be aware and be sensitive to who might be providing that and what some of their motivations might be.

Is that because you can’t work with companies receiving investment from certain countries around the world?

It’s more than just a strict “can’t.” Some of our adversaries might be indirectly or directly providing funding and might be seeking to impose their influence on those companies. We want them to be aware of that.

Are you taking any steps to address the obstacles to commercial purchases?

Yes, we are. On the integration side, we’re working very closely with our mission partners, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the broader Department of Defense and intelligence community, to take steps to proactively integrate the commercial capabilities that we can avail ourselves of. It is a constant set of efforts. There’s a lot of testing. There’s a lot of expectation-setting. We spend a lot of time and energy working through that because it is important if we’re going to truly leverage the commercial capabilities that we are putting on contract.

One effort is called Commercial GEOINT Integration. The intent is to integrate multiple commercial capabilities from various vendors into the larger architecture as seamlessly and scalable as possible. We are trying to get away from stovepipe or bespoke levels of integration.

On the financial side, there’s a lot of discussion with the providers to ensure they are sensitized to funding sources. We work with our interagency partners across the intelligence community to make sure that we provide awareness and threat briefings to our companies and providers.

What percentage of your budget goes to commercial purchases, and how would you define them?

Because our budget is classified, we can’t get into the details, unfortunately. NRO is fully committed to leveraging commercial wherever we can and ensuring that we leverage it as a commercial product or service.

Does that mean you don’t bring in something and change it to make it a government product or service?

Yes. If there is a service we can utilize with a minimum or zero modification, that’s where it’s most cost-effective. If we have to take a commercial service and change it dramatically to uniquely meet our needs, that increasingly walks away from that potential.

Anything else you wanted to say?

NRO is in the midst of building out the largest and most capable, diverse, resilient overhead constellation in its history. Commercial capabilities play a key role in that. Commercial and national systems complement each other and allow us to satisfy a larger and broader set of requirements that are ever-increasing and ever-getting more difficult across the user community, from the DoD and intelligence community to federal civil missions. Our partnerships with industry are integral to our mission and key to our success. There seem to be more partnerships over the last five years. Certainly more partnerships and, at least on our side, more providers that we’re able to utilize data from. We’re looking forward to doing it even more.

This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “NRO expands commercial partnerships”
  1. Our approach to commercial capabilities, products, and services is straightforward and captured well in that motto. How we do that can manifest itself in a number of diverse ways, whether it’s acquiring ready-made solutions from commercial providers or developing and constructing our own tailored systems when necessary. The key is to leverage the strengths of the market while ensuring we have the necessary in-house expertise to meet our unique requirements. It’s a delicate balance that ultimately allows us to maximize efficiency and effectiveness in fulfilling our mission goals.

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