Masters of the dark art: The NRO and the operational level of war

For decades, the NERO has developed the strategy and tactics needed to excel in military space operations, despite the lack of spacepower theory or theorists.

Within the history of human endeavors, whether they bring success or failure, the desire to “pin the rose” on one person for summation and understanding is overwhelming. War is no different, with every era and domain of warfare having their chosen strategist. Names such as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett, Warden, and Boyd are studied, debated, vilified, and redeemed within the halls of military academies and professional institutions on a daily basis. However, one identified warfighting domain, outer space, has yet to have its own theorist “rise above.”

In his 2014 article, “The Search for Space Doctrine’s War-Fighting Icon,” Dr. Dale L. Hayden states:

“For decades space professionals have asked, ‘Who is our foundational theorist?’ or ‘Where is the space Mahan?’ Who is space’s doctrinal icon, and if one does not exist, why not?”

Even without an identified prime theorist, operations in space have continued for six decades. For warfighting practitioners, four levels of war have been defined: Tactical, Operational, Strategic, and Grand Strategic (e.g. National Policy). The first three are in the realm of the warfighter, while the last is usually in the domain of politicians and national leaders. Space professionals have tried for decades to shoehorn dictums from land, air, and maritime strategists for all levels of space operations, with varying levels of success. But still, no one person has come to the forefront of space power theory advocacy.

Without a space power theorist, lessons drawn from and used for the operational level of war have also been kludged from air, ground, and sea theories. While tactical-level actions are dependent on the weapon system characteristics and the operational (micro) environment, strategic-level interactions are usually cross-domain, while grand strategy are cross Instruments of Power (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic.) When identifying a practitioner of the operational art for space warfare, one might identify a position such as the Joint Air Component Commander (JFACC) for the Joint Force Commander. These are positions, not a specific individual, that are identified as taming the dark art of the operational level of war in the space domain.

However, within the catalog listing of US government agencies, an organization has readily adapted to the challenges and ever-changing requirements of the space environment, and presumably continues to do so behind a necessary layer of secrecy: the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). They are the masters of the operational level in the space domain.

Stepping down a level (of war)

Space is the most recent physical domain of military operation. The other three physical domains have had at least a century (air) and in some cases many millennia (ground, sea) to have theorists analyze operations within. Ground pounders have Hannibal’s battles with the Roman army to consider, naval theorists have the British Navy’s bloody 19th Century to study, and airpower has conflicts in the 20th Century to analyze. Space has had less time (just six decades) to have conflicts and operations scrutinized. Minus a handful of years, the NRO has a presence in every major facet of space operations since the start of the Space Race. This longevity and singular purpose gives the organization a unique perspective on the formulation of operational level thought for space operations.

Most history texts view the National Reconnaissance Program (NRP) satellite fleet and the NRO as a benign (e.g. non-shooting) intelligence-gathering organization for US leadership. When viewed through the lens of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the NRO’s function and operation of the NRP fleet was subordinate to national policy (aka Grand Strategy) and supported other governmental organizations (e.g. CIA, DIA, military services.)

Changing the lens of analysis from Cold War context to contemporary warfighting precepts, study of the NRO’s purpose and drive to succeed highlights an organization with an amazing wealth of knowledge about space operations, regardless of whether their “shots” are photographic or kinetic.

A soundbite view of NRO history

Inside “The Rommel Myth,” James R. Robinson outlines four elements of the operational art: time, space, means, and purpose. Master these, as colloquial wisdom goes, and you may become a “Great Captain” of war. While Robinson’s elements are also found the other levels of war, the impact of their characteristics are more pronounced at the operational level. Skill at the operational level, can be seen as the “connecting tissue” between tactical (muscle) and strategic (bone.)

Placing a broad stroke view of NRO’s fifty-year history across these four elements offers a Pollyanna view of space operations: an organization whose singular purpose has not shifted greatly over five decades and was provided adequate means (money, people, equipment) to successfully accomplish its ends (intelligence collection and dissemination). Within the struggle toward that success, they became experts at operating their systems when and where they were required, becoming de facto masters of time and space.

The NRO’s early (declassified) history is peppered with results of failure and success, while being driven by the requirements of the times. Eventually-successful satellite programs, such as CORONA, were interspersed with other programs (ARGON, LANYARD) whose goals were not met or became artifacts of changing requirements. Later photographic systems, such as GAMBIT and HEXAGON, also had their own ups and downs.

Robinson’s elements of the operational art are useful only to a point, giving laymen an easily summarized picture of the success of the NRO, a soundbite if you will. Additional categorization of the operational art, found in Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, is necessary.

Operational or organizational art?

JP 3-0 posits that operational art is “…the use of creative thinking by commanders and staffs to design strategies, campaigns, and major operations and organize and employ military forces.” JP 3-0 also defines its operational elements as a laundry list of factors:

  • Synergy
  • Simultaneity and depth
  • Anticipation
  • Balance
  • Leverage
  • Timing and tempo
  • Operational reach and approach
  • Forces and functions
  • Arranging operations
  • Centers of gravity
  • Direct vs. indirect approach
  • Decisive points
  • Culmination
  • Termination

The early NRO structure lacked organizational synergy due to the existence of the Alphabet program offices (Program A, B, C and D). With each program having a singular scope and/or benefactor, “stovepiping” was an apparent problem. Elimination of the Alphabet program offices in the 1990s, allowed interaction between offices and individuals to further the institutional knowledge base. Even though stovepiping is considered a detrimental factor in organizations, the singleness of purpose within the offices allowed generation of a great deal of expertise depth over the early decades. Simultaneity occurred within the Thor and Titan launch programs, for example, when meeting requirements for individual payload types (SIGINTversus IMINT.) The culmination of changes to the rocket design, for either unique payload set, fed back into the launch system families’ knowledge base, strengthening the overall success rate, with Thor and Titan having two of the most successful launch rates in history.

Anticipation of changing intelligence requirements after the Cold War allowed the NRO to “jump ahead,” with reorganization and disestablishment of the Alphabet programs. One key anticipatory move occurred in the 1970s, with the adoption of the charged-couple device (CCD) married with overhead systems, allowing digital imagery collection. With a slew of requirements from customers, the organization became masters at the art of balance, providing the “right” number of SIGINT, IMINT, and relay satellites—neither too many nor too little.

From Joint Publication 1, Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, leverage is partially defined as “gaining, maintaining and exploiting advantages.” Through expeditious adoption and research of new technologies, and partnering with civilian and commercial institutions (e.g. Itek and Eastman Kodak), the NRO has gone beyond state-of-the-art, and remained ensconced within the state-of-the-possible throughout its history.

Timing and tempo can be simply summed up as “right place, right time, right speed.” With the knowledge of forethought, and helping to design the future, the organization has stayed ahead of any appreciably similar group. When the People’s Republic of China first launched their Fanhui Shi Weixing recoverable satellite (comparable to early CORONA recoverable satellites, though with impregnated-oak shielded re-entry vehicles) in 1975, the NRO was roughly one year away from launching their first CCD-based electro-optical satellite.

Operational reach and approach describes the distance over which military power can be concentrated and employed directly. Only in partial jest can the NRO’s operational reach be described as “one hundred to three hundred miles (straight up) from the enemy.” The presence of a fleet of spacecraft allows operational reach to any point on the globe within approximately 90 minutes. Concentration of these forces at a culmination point during operations are possible, but it is unknown if this has been attempted due to the secrecy of NRO operational details.

Details of the additional factors below, may emerge after the passage of time, through declassified historical documents into the waiting arms of researchers and military strategists.

  • Forces and functions
  • Arranging operations
  • Centers of gravity
  • Direct vs. indirect approach
  • Decisive points
  • Culmination
  • (Conflict/engagement) Termination

Recent real-world examples of these remaining elements (see below), as quoted within an NRO document, likely contain:

“…information which might reveal the extent and success of the NRP [and] is tightly controlled. Such controlled information includes the identity and scope of specific operational and development programs, the U.S. state-of-the-art in reconnaissance sensors and related equipment and the quality and quantity of [intelligence] being obtained.”

Back into the black

The NRO’s fleet of intelligence gathering satellites has been collated together under the NRP moniker for budgetary, security, and political reasons. The cohesiveness of the identifier, however, creates a seamless ecosystem for space assets from cradle to grave. The NRO was instrumental in the standardization of mass-produced satellites and space-related infrastructure. The creation of the Agena upper stage, in its various configurations (especially the “standardized” Agena-D), paved the way in the manufacturing and acquisition of a numerically superior fleet. While the hardware did not always survive, the hard-won lessons learned did, and are, passed along to successive generations as institutional knowledge.

Resurgent ideas about creating a US military space corps are being debated in Congress. If plans for a dedicated space warfighting cadre come to fruition, the political architects of the space corps would do well to include organizational characteristics from the NRO’s storied (and frequently successful) history. These pioneers of national reconnaissance and masters of the dark art of space warfare deserve no less.


Hayden, Dale., “The Search for Space Doctrine’s War-Fighting Icon,” Air and Space Power Journal, November/December 2014.

Robinson, James R., “The Rommel Myth,” Military Review, Vol. 77, No. 5, September/October 1997

National Reconnaissance Office, “Review and Redaction Guide, Version 2.0,” November 2011.