'SILENTBARKER' might be the US' worst-kept secret spy mission

Somewhat in the name, the National Reconnaissance Office's upcoming 'SILENTBARKER' space launch will be carrying spy satellites, the organization openly reports.
Christopher McFadden
Representational picture.
Representational picture.


The United States' National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has made public its intentions to launch a new suite of spy satellites next Tuesday (September 5, 2023). Set to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the announcement is unprecedented for this typically highly secret organization. So why have they made it public? In short, it acts as a deterrent.

Not-so-secret mission

“A huge element of deterrence is the ability for the adversary to know what we can and cannot see, so we actually want our competitors to know that we have eyes in GEO and we can see what's happening in GEO,” Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, who leads Space Systems Command explained.

“We want to let people know, to some extent, what our capabilities are, and this is one capability that if you think about it, has great value beyond just national security,” explained Chris Scolese, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, in a roundtable with reporters on Monday.

"We’re trying to be more transparent and share more information," Scolese added. As more countries and companies launch missions into space, Scolese explained that the space environment is becoming more congested, contested, and competitive.

"It’s also becoming easier and easier to see what’s going up there," Scolese said. “We want to let people know, to some extent, what our capabilities are, and this is one capability that if you think about it, has great value beyond just national security,” Scolese added. Officials did not disclose the number of "multiple payloads" on tomorrow's launch. But, the 'SILENTBARKER' mission is expected to have two launches, with the possibility of more, and will be fully operational in 2026.

Multiple satellites belonging to the NRO will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 8:34 am EDT (12:34 UTC). The exact number of satellites has not been disclosed by officials, however. The satellites will be placed in geosynchronous orbit, which is a group of satellites located over the equator at a distance of over 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers).

Scolese also explained that the satellites will provide the United States with exceptional coverage of activities in the GEO belt. This will enable the country to gain insights into the intentions of foreign nations and determine whether there are any potential threats or if everything is normal. Scolese referred to the program as a "watchdog" that will enhance the Space Force and NRO's understanding of GEO activities.

“We also want to know if there is something going on that is unexpected, or shouldn't be going on that could potentially represent a threat to a high-value asset, either ours or one of our allies,” he said. 

The need for dynamic space operations has been emphasized by Space Command, which involves the ability of satellites to move around outside of their designated orbital position. According to Scolese, this new capability will provide the US with the necessary information to determine when and if it's necessary to reposition their space assets.

An open secret

“What 'SILENTBARKER' is going to do is provide the indications and warnings so it can inform decisions about what we do or don't need to do in terms of maneuver or awareness. So it's a great increase in our understanding of what we'll be able to do and will greatly improve our ability to determine future courses of action,” Scolese said. 

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