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The National Reconnaissance Office at 50 years: A Brief History

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The history of the National Reconnaissance Office is a story of how opportunity, necessity, and determination converged to produce an intelligence organization unlike any that had come before. In the late 1950s, rocket and sensor technologies were just reaching a level of maturity so that they could assist the United States in facing the most challenging national security problem of the age how to analyze Soviet military forces and avert a potential nuclear war. After providing the hard data that made it possible to understand and deter the Soviet Union, NRO systems later became the primary means that made possible the arms control agreements that defused U.S.-Soviet tensions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NRO systems became ever more integrated into U.S. military capabilities, playing a critical role in the Gulf War, peacekeeping operations, and most recently, global operations against terrorists. In retrospect, it seems remarkable that even as the United States was achieving its goal of putting a man on the moon, there was an equally ambitious and technologically challenging American space program proceeding along a parallel path -- but in strictest secrecy. It was not until 1978 that a President acknowledged that the United States carried out reconnaissance from space, and not until 1992 that the government acknowledged the NROs existence. Until recently, it would have been impossible to publish an official, authoritative, unclassified history of the NRO. Originally the NRO and its mission were totally unacknowledged, first to protect the source and method and second, in deference to the sensitivity that some countries might have to U.S. satellites orbiting over their territory. Today we take such activities for granted, and the NRO and its mission can be much more open, and focus its measures for secrecy on those areas in which the organization is developing technologies that exceed the publics imagination and the expectations of our adversaries.

Subject Categories:

  • Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft
  • Government and Political Science
  • Military Intelligence
  • Unmanned Spacecraft

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