IMINT Overview

Imagery intelligence satellites use film and electronic cameras, or radars, to produce high resolution images of objects on the ground at ranges of up to one thousand kilometers. Orbiting at altitudes several hundred kilometers, such satellites can readily identify and distinguish differing types of vehicles and equipment with resolutions better than 10 centimeters. Resolutions of several meters are useful in locating vehicles and characterizing installations, while resolutions on the order of ten meters have some applications for locating facilities, such as airfields and ports.

Imaging satellites are used both for peacetime collection of intelligence, as well as the location of targets to support combat operations. Perhaps their most significant applications has been as national technical means of verification of arms control agreements. As such, they have made possible the modern revolution in arms control, in which treaties may be based on the certain knowledge that any significant violation would be quickly detected.

The United States began development of imaging intelligence satellites in the 1950s.(1) Since the early 1960's, the United States has employed a number of different models of photographic intelligence satellite of three basic types.

One series of progressively more capable satellites performed the `close look' mission, returning high-resolution photographs to Earth using small re-entry capsules. The most recent examples of this type are the KH-8 Low Altitude Surveillance Platform, and the KH-9 Big Bird. The use film return satellites was discontinued in the early 1980s.

Another series of increasingly sophisticated satellites performed area surveillance. These satellites returned images to Earth via an electronic telemetry link. Initially these satellites provided a somewhat lower resolution than those of the film satellites. The most recent example of this series is the KH-11, and the Advanced Keyhole, sometimes referred to as the KH-12. Three of the older KH-11s are currently in orbit, as well as three of the more capable Advanced Keyholes, which fly in orbits nearly twice as high as their predecessors.

Despite its many advances, these optical imaging satellites suffer a common shortcoming -- the inability to see through clouds. With many areas of interest frequently covered with clouds, this has always posed a problem for intelligence collection. However, in the past, this problem was primarily one of directing the satellite's coverage toward cloud-free areas, and awaiting improved visibility in cloudy regions. While this procedure may have been adequate for peace-time operations, it is clearly inadequate for war-time target acquisition.

A space-based imaging radar can see through clouds, and utilization of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) techniques can potentially provide images with a resolution that approaches that of photographic reconnaissance satellites. An project to develop such a satellite, named Lacrosse, was initiated in the early 1980s, with the first satellite launched in 1988.(2) Three of these satellites are currently in orbit.

Continuing the major expansion of the number of American low-altitude intelligence satellites begun in 1988 with the launch of the first Lacrosse imaging radar satellite.(3) The United States continued operations of three KH-11 photographic intelligence satellites through the year. The sixth KH-11, launched in December 1984 remained in orbit at the end of 1990, surpassing by three years the demonstrated orbital life for these satellites. Other imaging intelligence spacecraft in orbit included the first KH-12 launched in August 1989, as well as the first Lacrosse launched in 1988.

And on 28 February 1990 by the Space Shuttle Discovery on flight STS-36 deployed what appeared to be the second new generation of photographic reconnaissance satellites, popularly referred to as the Advanced Keyhole or the KH-12.(4) This spacecraft was placed in an orbit with an initial inclination of 62 degrees. On 3 March 1990 this spacecraft executed a small maneuver to raise its altitude, and on 7 March it executed a much larger maneuver, which raised its inclination to 65 degrees, and its altitude to a roughly circular orbit at 811 kilometers.

Imaging intelligence satellites were widely used in Desert Shield operations in 1990. In addition, civilian LANDSAT and SPOT images were used to develop up-to-date maps of the theater of operations.(5)

Intelligence reports provided warning of the Iraqi invasion nearly a week before it occurred, including both the timing and magnitude of the assault.(6) A few days after the invasion, satellite photography showing the Iraqi military buildup on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border was instrumental in convincing Saudi King Fahd permit the introduction of American troops.(7) These systems were not infallible, since the US lost track of four Iraqi divisions for a 24 hour period on August 7-8.(8) By late August satellite photos showed new troops being deployed lines parallel to the Saudi border and along the Persian Gulf.(9)

In early September, satellite imagery detected the deployment of a new type of missile mobile launcher mounted atop flat-bed trucks.(10) In late September US intelligence identified chemical decontamination sites in Iraq along the Kuwaiti border with Iraq.(11) In early October several vans photographed by a US spy satellite were identified as Soviet jamming gear, code-named 'Paint Can,' at several locations inside Kuwait and along Iraq's border.(12) By late October, Iraqi forces were shifting position frequently to evade satellite intelligence.(13) Imaging intelligence systems were also used to monitor the effectiveness of the embargo, and by early December satellite showed a steady stream of trucks entering Iraq from Iran.(14)

The expansion of treaty verification satellite programs has largely been the results of the efforts of Oklahoma Democratic Senator David Boren, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He led the move for the six year, $6 billion plan,(15) saying that if the plan were not approved, that he was prepared to oppose ratification of the START agreement. The plan included procurement of six additional Lacrosse imaging radar satellites, at over $500 million each, for verification of a START arms reduction agreement.(16)

These satellites will be in addition to the KH-12 and Lacrosse satellites already planned for procurement. These previously programmed systems would have probably resulted in three or four of type each spacecraft operational in orbit at any one time by the early 1990's.(17) The additional satellites proposed by Senator Boren would have added three or four operational spacecraft, bringing the total to somewhere between 9 and 12 satellites. This is in stark contrast to the historical pattern of the 1970's and early 1980's during which typically two KH-11's would be in orbit year round, joined by a KH-9 perhaps six months out of the year. The five-fold increase in the number of satellites in orbit probably translates into at least a ten-fold increase in the number of images returned daily, since most of the new satellites are Lacrosse imaging radar spacecraft with an all-weather capability.

Initially the Boren plan did not receive the support of the intelligence community, which was concerned about the formidable task of analyzing the mountain of additional data that the additional satellites would generate.(18) Director of Central Intelligence William Webster argued against the plan. "I believe this nation would receive greater benefit by funding more modest proposals designed to take better advantage of existing and programmed assets rather than by trying to fund a multi-billion dollar... system at this time."(19) Citing this testimony, the House Appropriations Committee rejected the Boren plan, noting that these "proposed improvements to our intelligence collection capabilities for verification will cost billions of dollars, are not the highest priority of the intelligence community, did not result from a thorough review by career intelligence professionals, and may ultimately provide only a marginal increase in our treaty monitoring capability."(20)

Although initial funding for the plan was approved in 1988, Webster remained concerned about the impact of the funding requirements for this new program on existing intelligence efforts.(21) And the new Bush Administration recommended termination of the program in early 1989,(22) much to the displeasure of Senator Boren,(23) who eventually succeeded in obtaining a commitment by President Bush to fund his program,(24) although with delays of one to two years.(25) The plan once again faced opposition from the House Appropriations Committee,(26) which was once again overcome by year's end,(27) finally with Webster's support.(28)

In contrast to prior years, in which the expanded budget(29) for imaging intelligence satellites was marked by vocal political opposition,(30) there was no public dispute in 1990.



1. Richelson, Jeffrey, America's Secret Eyes in Space, (New York, Harper & Row, 1990).

2. Woodward, B., "At CIA, a Rebuilder Goes With the Flow," Washington Post, 10 August 1988, p. A8.

3. Covault, C., "Atlantis Radar Satellite Payload Opens New Reconnaissance Era," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 12 December 1988, pp. 26-28.

4. The proper nomenclature for the new satellite remains unclear. It is reliably suggested that the American intelligence community no longer uses the KH designation system, and thus there is properly no such satellite as the "KH-12." Unfortunately, the Byeman code name for this new spacecraft has not been publicly compromised (the KH-11 was Kennan, KH-9 was Hexagon, and so forth). Thus the least inaccurate designation for this satellites is probably "Advanced KH-11." But this appellation does not do justice to the significant differences between the new and old spacecraft, and is somewhat the equivalent of terming a B-52 an advanced B-47. Since most published reports over the years have referred to this new satellite as the KH-12, that nomenclature will be adhered to here, until the proper Byeman name for the satellite is understood.

5. Kiernan, Vincent, "Satellite Data Boosts Quality for US Troops," Space News, 15 October 1990, page 1, 28.

6. Jehl, Douglas, "Iraq Standoff Exposes Gap in US Intelligence Force," Los Angeles Times, 25 August 1990, page A1, A15.

7. Offley, Ed, "Vital Space Assets," Seattle Post- Intelligence, 23 August 1990, page 1.

8. "Dugan Orders Review of Limited SR-71 Revival," Defense Daily, 20 August 1990, page 276.

9. Ramo, Joshua, "Iraqi Supply Problems Reported," The Boston Globe, 22 August 1990.

10. Gertz, Bill, "Iraqis Deploying Special Missile Launching System," The Washington Times, 13 September 1990.

11. Gertz, Bill, "Toxic Attack Sensed in Gulf," The Washington Times, 24 September 1990, page A8.

12. Gertz, Bill, "US Breathes Easier as it Spots Iraq's Jamming Gear," The Washington Times, 9 October 1990, page A8.

13. Gertz, Bill, "Oil Fire in Gulf is Iraqi Tactic," The Washington Times, 1 November 1990, page A12.

14. Horwitz, Tony, "Wily Smugglers Keep Embargoed Supplies Flowing into Iraq," The Wall Street Journal, 5 December 1990, page 1.

15. Rasky, Susan, "Senators Balking Over Verification," The New York Times, 29 April 1988.

16. Gertz, Bill, "Senate Panel Asks for Radar Funds," The Washington Times, 5 April 1988, page A3.

17. Broad, William, "U.S. Adds Spy Satellites Despite Easing Tensions," The New York Times, 3 December 1989, page 8.

18. Evans, Rowland, and Novak, Robert, "The Indigo-Lacrosse Satellite Gets the Nod," The Washington Post, 6 April 1988, page A24.

19. "Spy Sat Spending Plan Hits a Snag," Military Space, 20 June 1988, page 5.

20. "Spy Sat Spending Plan Hits a Snag," Military Space, 20 June 1988, page 4-5.

21. Engelberg, Stephen, "C.I.A. Chief Finds Gorbachev A Mixed Blessing for Agency," The New York Times, 11 December 1988, page 1, 42.

22. Gertz, Bill, "Bush Plan to Slight Satellites and Boren," The Washington Times, 30 March 1989, page A3.

23. Rasky, Susan, "Bush is Accused of Backing Away from Promise on 1988 Arms Pack," The New York Times, 7 April 1989, page 1, A9.

24. "Bush OKs Proceeding With New Surveillance Sats," Defense Daily, 19 April 1989, page 102.

25. Gertz, Bill, "Plan to Delay Space Satellite Will be Costly, Sources Say," The Washington Times, 17 April 1989, page A4.

26. Munro, Neil, "House Senate Committees Battle Over funding Spy System," Defense News, 18 September 1989, page 39.

27. Engelberg, Steven, "Pressure Grows for Cuts in Intelligence Spending," The New York Times, 28 November 1989, page A18.

28. Ottaway, David, "Webster Seeks to Avert Intelligence Budget Cuts," The Washington Post, 30 November 1989, page A50.

29. Rasky, Susan, "Senators Balking Over Verification," The New York Times, 29 April 1988.

30. Munro, Neil, "House Senate Committees Battle Over funding Spy System," Defense News, 18 September 1989, page 39.


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