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COMM OPS: Military Satellites—Applications
by Jos Heyman, Tiros Space Information

As of July 1, 2008 the nations of the world had launched a total of 6,040 satellites and spacecraft since the first launch of Sputnik-1 on October 4, 1957. Of these, 2,748 can be considered as having purely military applications. This total excludes crewed missions that were used to undertake, amongst others, military experiments. It also excludes military scientific satellites and satellites that were primarily used for other purposes with military applications as a secondary objective.

There is no doubt that the concept of satellites would not have existed to the extent that we now know were it not for the military services of the United States and the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). Not only did these military services envisage the advantages of using space for military purposes before the launch of the first satellites, but spaceflight would also have been impossible without the rockets developed for the military for use as ICBM missiles. These rockets, and their derivatives, proved essential for access to space.

It is believed that the engineers and scientists of Nazi-Germany were the first to consider the possibility of placing a (piloted) satellite in orbit for military reconnaissance purposes. Such a satellite was to be launched by their A-12 launcher, a development of the A-2 missile. Although no such satellite did materialize, this interest continued after the war when the military services of the United States and the USSR made extensive use of satellite-based surveillance systems to provide an around the clock surveillance of each other’s territory during a period we know as the Cold War. Such surveillance was tolerated by both superpowers, if not willingly, by the fact that there was relatively little that could be done about it.

Over time, various types of military application satellites have emerged, with the major applications being:
  • Reconnaissance satellites, which provide photographic or electronic images of the surface of the Earth
  • Electronic intelligence gathering systems, which provide information on radio communications
  • Early warning systems, which provide advanced warning of missile attacks through the detection of missile exhaust plumes
  • Ocean surveillance systems, which locate and monitor the movements of naval vessels
  • Radar calibration, which simulate incoming missiles and test the ground based early warning systems
  • Communications, which provide battlefield communications
  • Meteorological, which provide meteorological information
Navigational, which provide accurate locational information for ground, naval and airborne forces; and Other, such as satellites for anti-satellite testing, the detection of nuclear explosions and other minor military purposes.

As can be expected, details of military satellites, such as their primary objective, their orbits, and their instrumentation, are treated as classified information.

However, as international agreements require the identification of all satellites through an International Designation (e.g., 2008 012A, the latest recorded United States military satellite), the existence of military satellites, along with their launch dates, is known.

To cloak these satellites, the United States and the USSR/Russia have resorted to evasive practices.

The USSR/Russia uses the multi-discipline Kosmos series to ‘hide’ its military satellites. These satellites are invariably described as carrying ‘scientific instruments, a radio system for precise measurement of orbit elements, and a radio telemetry system’. The Kosmos series, which had reached Kosmos-2440 by July 1, 2008, was also extensively used to cloak a range of non-military satellites.

Initially, the United States did identify its military satellites by name. However, starting in early 1962, the military authorities halted the assignment of names to military satellites. That was until 1984, when they designated their satellites in a USA series that has now reached USA-201.

How, then, do we know the objectives of military satellites and, in some cases, their instrumentation?

A first indication is the vehicle that is used for the launch of a military satellite. Such a vehicle cannot be ‘cloaked’ — for obvious reasons — and can, therefore, provide a first indication of the objective of the military satellite. Another indicator is the launch site itself. Satellites to be placed in a geostationary orbit, such as military communications satellites, are invariably launched from near-equatorial sites such as Cape Canaveral and Baikonour, while reconnaissance satellites are, as a rule, launched into a polar orbit from launch sites such as Vandenberg and Plesetsk.

More information on the satellite’s objective can be gathered from the orbit. Although the orbit is not normally announced, NORAD publishes the orbital data and has always been quite happy to make known this information for USSR/Russian satellites. Other information sources include visual and radio satellite observations conducted by amateurs.

Finally, there are the occasional snippets of information in press releases, scientific papers, and other references that, in the hands of a gifted space historian, can be used to slowly gain a complete description of a satellite or a satellite series, including the classified code names. Such a process might not be completed until many years after that satellite was launched. Finally, after many years, the information may be declassified as a result of Freedom-of-Information requests.

For reasons to which we are not privileged, some programs are better documented than others, in particular the Defence Support Program (DSP) system of early warning satellites. In fact, the DSP system is unclassified.

In the early days, observing satellites was in fashion. One of the early observers was an English science teacher named Geoff Perry. Located in the town of Kettering, England, Geoff and senior chemistry teacher Derek Slater used radio receivers to listen to transmissions of satellites. Their first attempt to receive signals was from Sputnik-4 and, over the period of a week, they made a number of recordings.

Then, one day, they received the satellite’s signals later than expected and concluded the satellite must have moved to a higher orbit. Indeed, the spacecraft had, but unintentionally so. The USSR had tried to recover a spherical capsule with a dummy cosmonaut, but the satellite was facing the wrong direction and when the rocket fired, Sputnik-4 went into a higher orbit. Later on, Geoff Perry made extensive use of his students in the observation programs — it was part of their educational program.

On March 17, 1966 the USSR launched Kosmos-112. From the observation data obtained by Geoff Perry, it became apparent there was something different about the spacecraft besides the satellite’s departure from the standard 65° inclination to 72°. He examined the ground track and it was obvious it could not have been launched from Baikonour or Kapustin Yar, the known launch sites. With further observations of Kosmos-129, on October 14, 1966, again indicating the launch had initiated from a more northerly launch site, Perry decided to publish his observations, pointing towards a launch site at a location now known as Plesetsk.

There is no doubt that the United States military was aware of the Plesetsk launch site but were not in a position to reveal their knowledge. The independent publication of the findings of Geoff Perry allowed others to become aware of the information. These included Dr. Charles S. Sheldon II of the Congressional Research Service of the U.S. Library of Congress, who included details of this new launch site in his work for the U.S. Congress.

Over time, Perry established a worldwide network of global observers, loosely referred to as the Kettering Group. The data generated by these amateurs became an essential part of the identification of the USSR’s military satellites.

These days, visual observations continue to be recorded by a group of about 20 amateurs, or hobbyists, around the world. The spokesman of this informal group is Canadian Ted Molczan. Equipped with little more than a pair of binoculars, or a telescope on a tripod, a stop watch, and star charts, he and his fellow satellite-gazers have tracked more than 190 military satellites flying in secret orbits between 2,000 and 40,000 kilometers above the Earth.

U.S. officials prefer hobbyists not publish their findings, suggesting that foreign countries try to hide their activities when they know a spy satellite will be passing overhead. Ted has stated that, “In a democracy, there’s a necessary and healthy tug-of-war between people in government who tend to want to make things secret and the public’s need and right to know.” Ted’s informal group began to concentrate on military satellites after the United States ceased publishing the orbits of its military satellites in June 1983. Among their achievements was the identification of the first U.S. stealth satellite that was supposed to be invisible to radar and optical tracking.

Over the years, the number of military applications satellites being launched each year has dramatically decreased. This decrease can be attributed to several unrelated causes.

First of all, improved technology has made the operation of the satellite more sophisticated — this extends their operational life. For instance, early reconnaissance satellites relied on photo return capsules and had an operational life of about one to two weeks. These days, with the development of image transmission and radar technology, these satellites can remain operational far longer.

The demise of the USSR, and subsequent thaw of the Cold War as well as the lack of funds in Russia, has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of military satellites launched by Russia.

Under the provisions of the United NationsOuter Space Treaty, which was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the USSR on October 10, 1967, outer space cannot be used to place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty set further limits on the use of exo-atmospheric interceptor deployments in space. The net effect was to put the brakes on development of space weapons and preserve a relatively tranquil domain.

Despite this, some military experiments have been associated with space warfare, i.e., a space-to-Earth, space-to-space, or Earth-to-space intercept/destroy scenario.

During the period 1966 to 1971, the USSR launched a series of Kosmos satellites to test the so called Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS), whereby multiple warheads would be deployed. In these tests, a shell representing the nuclear warhead of a ballistic missile was placed in orbit and recovered over the USSR within one orbit to study the effects of re-entry on the dummy warhead. Tests were suspended in 1971, possibly because the techniques were found to be impractical.

In addition, in 1967, the USSR commenced testing of an anti-satellite (ASAT) system. The tests consisted of placing a target vehicle into orbit and having this target overtaken by an interceptor, which could destroy the target by exploding itself. No weapons of any sorts are believed to have been carried in these tests, which had a success rate of 70 percent. A second series of tests commenced in 1976 and possibly included a new guidance system, which was not susceptible to jamming. The success rate of that series was only 57 percent.

Similar to the USSR, the military forces in the United States military forces have experimented with anti-satellite weapons as well. In the late 50s and early 60s, a number of anti-satellite systems were studied under the code names Saint, Insatrac, Spad and Bambi. The latter proposal envisaged the placing in orbit of 100,000 satellites to intercept ICBM missiles. Between 1964 and 1968, anti-satellite weapons were tested with sounding rockets. Thirteen such sub-orbital launches were conducted during the period using Thor ballistic missiles.

The first major achievement came on September 13 1985, when an ASAT missile fired by an F-15 fighter blew up the scientific P78-1 satellite, which was launched on February 24, 1979. Another four firings of this missile, developed by Vought, were conducted, but against pre-determined points in space rather than physical targets. Further tests were to be held in 1986/87. Two specially instrumented target satellites, known as ITV-1 and ITV-2, were launched on December 13, 1985. The satellites, also known as USA-13 and -14, were to have been destroyed by ASAT missiles, but a moratorium on ASAT weapons prevented these tests from occurring. A further three ITV satellites were scheduled for 1989/1990, but were never launched.

In early 2008, an opportunity occurred that allowed anti-satellites techniques to be tested in a lawful way. A military reconnaissance satellite known as USA-193 (or NROL-21) had been launched on December 14, 2006. The satellite was probably to have been placed into a higher orbit of 20,000 km but it has been suggested it was abandoned in an orbit of about 350 km altitude due to failure to establish communications with the satellite. By February 11, 2008 the orbit had reduced to about 250 km, with a daily reduction of 1 km. The daily reduction was to increase as the spacecraft descended and it was estimated the spacecraft would decay in mid March of 2008. Concern about the 500 kg of hydrazine on board, which was believed frozen solid, led to the decision to destroy the spacecraft with an SM-3 missile fired from the USS Lake Erie on February 21, 2008. The missile was fired from a location in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii when USA-193 was in a 242 x 257 km orbit. The spacecraft was successfully destroyed and resulted in more than 80 pieces of debris that burned up in the atmosphere over the next few days.

China conducted an anti-satellite test on January 11, 2007 when the Feng Yun 1-3 meteorological satellite that was launched on May 10, 1999, was destroyed by a medium range missile fitted with a kinetic kill vehicle — this resulted in more than 900 pieces of debris.

There is currently a trend towards the use of unclassified (including commercial) satellites to acquire vital intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data for the military, replacing most of the uses of the highly classified satellites. This trend started during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when commanders on the ground found it difficult to acquire adequate access to data from intelligence satellites.

There will, however, always be a place for dedicated satellites in the field of surveillance and early warning, and the proposed SBIRS system is evidence of that need. The SBIRS satellites will be fitted with scanning sensors that will provide a wide range of information concerning mobile launchers and missile tracking as well as the more humble tasks such as spotting tanks and other ground vehicles.

There is also a trend toward smaller satellites that can be developed and launched at short notice and from mobile locations.

What has been the impact of satellites on war operations? Casualty data of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the current war in Iraq reveals a dramatic reduction in the number of average casualties per day. (See Table 4 below).

This reduction cannot be attributed to satellites only; rather, it is the result of an overall advancement in warfare technology. Furthermore, this reduction must be compared against the nature of the conflict, in particular World War II, where the war was conducted on multiple fronts. In particular, in the current Iraq war, it must be recognized the opponents do not have access to space based resources (as well as many other resources).

Nevertheless, we can conclude that the military space applications have had a positive impact on the incidence of war. They have contributed toward a reduction in the number of casualties and also, in the opinion of the author, toward the prevention of turning the Cold War turning into a Hot War.

About the author
Jos Heyman is the Managing Director of Tiros Space Information, a Western Australian consultancy specializing in the dissemination of information on the scientific exploration and commercial application of space for use by educational as well as commercial organizations.

An accountant by profession, Jos is the editor of the TSI News Bulletin and is also a regular contributor to the British Interplanetary Society’s Spaceflight journal. For more information regarding the TSI news bulletin, please select the logo below...