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More power for National Reconnaissance Office

Changes are in the works for one of the most secretive spy agencies in the U.S. government: the National Reconnaissance Office.

The agency's director, Bruce Carlson, a retired Air Force general who took on his new role last year, gave an update on his office's plans and laid out some details this week at the annual Air and Space Conference, just outside Washington. The NRO builds and operates the country's classified spy satellites and is one of the bigger players in Top Secret America.

According to articles in Space News and Defense News, Carlson's plans include:

  • Creating a charter that would give the NRO full budget authority for its own programs. Currently, the NRO "can decide when most of its programs are ready to move from the research and development phase to production," according to Space News. But for select programs, the "so-called milestone decision authority" is controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Under Carlson's new charter, the NRO would take charge of all of its programs.

    Carlson said it is necessary for him as the director of NRO to have this authority because he has to know that satellite systems are ready "when I hit that button" to launch them, he said Monday at the conference, according to Defense News.

  • Holding a "meeting of the minds." With two bosses -- the Defense Department and the Director of National Intelligence -- the NRO is "often given program requirements that are at odds," according to Carlson. He wants the power to call a meeting of the agency's two bosses to "ensure new programs are being conceived in an executable manner." In some cases, NRO gets specifications from the military and from the intelligence community that don't match, Carlson said.

  • Not starting a new hardware program if the requirements don't match or if the technology isn't ready. He said he wouldn't "allow NRO to accept performance specs that the office cannot realistically pull off."

    "I'm not just going to start a program where the requirements aren't matched to the resources," he said.

    Carlson pointed out that as a three-star general on the Joint Staff, he often pushed for taking money from NRO programs that were late and over budget. He touted that nine of 10 NRO hardware programs are expected to be within their expected budget and on time.

  • Not asking the Air Force or Defense Department for more money for programs because their budgets are not growing. He is seeking a "modest jump" in fiscal 2011 spending for the NRO's science and technology research .

  • Trying to get better prices. To do this, Carlson said, he's pushing for NASA and his office to jointly negotiate rocket contracts with companies, instead of individually buying the costly equipment.

    Other plans call for launching five national security satellites, starting in late September, to replaces ones that have far outlived their design life, Space News said.

    Carlson called it "the most aggressive launch campaign we've had in 20 years."

  • By Dana Hedgpeth  | September 16, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
     
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