Pioneers in Space Reconnaissance: A Brief History of The NRO
Americans have found themselves captivated by adventure novels like Tom Clancy's "Patriot Games" that come to life on the big screen. The scenes depicting the use of U.S. spy satellites add to the intrigue. We are mesmerized as a spy satellite transmits what appears to be real-time video of a night assault by U.S. Special Operations Forces on a terrorist camp located in the Sahara Desert. The satellite images vividly depict the assault force in action and terrorists dropping to the ground from close-range gunfire. They convey a sense of CNN-like coverage of breaking news.
The capabilities of these "movie satellites" (not constrained by the laws of physics) are the result of computer-simulated graphics and skillful special effects. Nonetheless, the premise for such capabilities is the spectacular technological achievements in satellite reconnaissance pioneered by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The NRO emerged at the height of the Cold War. During that time in U.S. history, the nation faced the threat of destruction from a nuclear attack. The Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and closed Communist society were the dominant threat to U.S. national security. Weekly civil defense drills and backyard bomb shelters instilled a real sense of "clear and present danger" to the American public.
The lack of insight into the Soviet Union during the early days of the Cold War and the fear of its nuclear arsenal were the focus of national attention. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high. Ambiguous and conflicting information from traditional intelligence sources concerning the extent of Soviet nuclear capabilities threatened to fuel the nuclear arms race. The risk of nuclear war led the U.S. Air Force to consider building as many as 10,000 ICBMs to counter the perceived threat. The Strategic Air Command flew around-the-clock airborne alert missions with B-52 bombers armed with nuclear warheads in order to deter the USSR from launching a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States.
In an effort to gain timely and more accurate information concerning Soviet capabilities, President Eisenhower initiated a covert program to develop an overhead reconnaissance capability to gather intelligence on the development, capabilities, location, and readiness of Soviet strategic nuclear forces. Advanced technology elements of the CIA and the Air Force were joined together to attack this problem. They rapidly developed the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which was able to penetrate Soviet airspace at higher altitudes than those at which Soviet fighters could then operate.
However, in their four years of operation, the U-2s were able to cover only one-tenth of the 10 million square miles of the USSR and provide only limited insight into Soviet strategic nuclear capabilities. Further, these flights were ended on May 1, 1960 after a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Powers was captured and the Soviets turned the incident into a major propaganda event. As a result, the need for a satellite reconnaissance capability to provide assured access over denied Soviet territory became paramount to U.S. national security.
The Air Force and CIA had been working on covert reconnaissance capabilities from space for some time. This was a high-risk effort and the program suffered a dozen failed missions before achieving its first success in August 1960.
The then-covert program, named Corona, finally yielded results that were considered spectacular at the time. The amount of Soviet territory covered in the film recovered from the very first Corona mission, for example, exceeded the area that had been covered previously by all the U-2 flights.
The information collected by Corona provided U.S. military planners and policy-makers with concrete evidence that the Soviet Union did not have overwhelming strategic superiority as had been feared. Subsequently, knowledge of the size and characteristics of Soviet nuclear forces made verification of arms control treaties possible and enabled the firm U.S. response to Soviet military expansion in the 1980s that eventually induced the USSR to collapse.
Like the Air Force in its efforts to collect imagery, the Navy and Air Force had tried to gather electronic radar signals intelligence (ELINT) by conducting aircraft flights along the periphery of the USSR, but these efforts could never provide more than a fraction of the required intelligence. As a result, the Navy in 1958 proposed an ELINT satellite. The proposal was supported by the Department of Defense and CIA, and was approved by President Eisenhower in 1959. The Naval Research Laboratory developed the satellite under the cover of an experimental solar radiation research satellite called GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background). The first launch in June 1960 succeeded in orbiting a GRAB satellite. Like Corona, however, many early GRAB missions were unsuccessful and four of the next five missions failed. The program nevertheless continued.
The data provided by the successful GRAB missions were priceless. The ELINT was used to develop operational plans for retaliatory strikes against the Soviet Union in the event of war. The National Security Agency analyzed and catalogued the data, determining from it, for example, that the Soviets were operating a radar in support of an anti-ballistic missile capability as early as the early 1960s. Navy programs were incorporated into NRO in 1962. GRAB was succeeded by other NRO satellite collectors of signals intelligence that have operated ever since.
A more recent example of the NRO's contribution to U.S. national security is the electro-optical imagery satellite program. The Corona photographic satellite system had limitations. The duration of missions was limited by the amount of film that could be carried on board, and the images obtained were not available to users for days or weeks after they were taken since all film had to be expended and the film capsule recovered before it could be processed.
NRO engineers addressed these challenges. They were able to develop an electronic "eye" that was able to convert light waves into electrical signals that could be relayed to Earth in near-real time. This and other technologies necessary electro-optical satellite system developed by the NRO have found their way into commercial and individual uses, including commercial electro-optical imagery satellites.
The NRO's real-time imagery satellite program was a lengthy effort. It was costly and often the subject of intense budgetary debate. Fortunately, influential individuals like Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, a founder of the Hewlett-Packard Corporation and an electrical engineer, were able to understand the program's technical feasibility and value and lent it their full support.
The first electro-optical satellite reconnaissance system--the name of which is still classified--was deployed by the NRO in 1976. The electro-optical imagery satellite system was declared operational by President Jimmy Carter on his first day in office, January 20, 1977.
Those satellites, and their improved successors, have enabled the United States to base its national security strategy on facts rather than fear and on empirical evidence rather than speculation. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said, commenting in March 1967 on the value of the NRO's photo-reconnaissance satellites:
It was during this Cold War period of pioneering technological achievements in space reconnaissance that the NRO enjoyed the greatest levels of recognition and support for its programs at the highest levels of the U.S. Government. The technologies pioneered and developed by the NRO forty years ago were just as amazing in their day as the simulated technological capabilities portrayed in the cinema today.
Armed with intelligence provided by NRO, the United States was able to out last Soviet power and now is able to lead the world into a new century which hopefully will be less violent and destructive than the last.