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American Overhead Visual Reconnaissance Systems

Lt Col A. Andronov and Sr Lt R. Shevrov:
No 3, 1995 pp 37-42

The first part of this article* was devoted to space research and development being conducted in the United States in the field of photographic and optico-electronic reconnaissance (OER) systems. Below we discuss repeater satellites, radar reconnaissance satellites, and satellites for remote photography of the earth. Together with optico-electronic reconnaissance satellites, by the early 1990's a subsystem of repeater satellites was also improved. The first of them (SDS), developed by Hughes, weighed about 700 kg and was launched by Titan-3B booster rockets from the Western Missile Test Range. Six of these satellites were put into orbit (average operating life of about seven years) between 1976 and 1985.

The second-generation SDS-2 satellites, created by the same company, were to be launched by the Space Shuttle. They are cylindrical in shape (diameter of almost 4 meters, launch weight of 6.9 tons, operating orbit weight of about 2 tons, an average operating life of up to 10 years). Improved relay equipment, whose traffic capacity has been increased considerably, has been installed on the satellites. Three SDS-2 satellites were launched between 1989 and 1992. One of them (SDS-2-2, also having the designation AFP-658) for the first time was put into a geostationary orbit over the Atlantic Ocean during preparations for combat operations in the Persian Gulf. This made it possible to include countries of the Near and Middle East and Africa in the zone of conducting reconnaissance with direct relay of data. Due to the secrecy that surrounds launches of KH and SDS satellites, one encounters much contradictory information in the press on this matter and different designations for the same satellites.

As was already pointed out, the main factor limiting the capabilities of OER satellites is cloud cover in the reconnaissance area. According to weather service data, in the vicinity of the nuclear test range on Novaya Zemlya, the average number of clear days per month during the year is from 17 to 40 percent, and in the vicinity of Krasnoyarsk, where in 1988 deployment of the new Soviet SS-24 Skalpel [Scalpel] intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBM] was tracked by KH-11 satellites, it is from 24 to 51 percent. The increased effectiveness of the OER system in such conditions can be achieved thanks to the inclusion of radar reconnaissance satellites in it, the development of which began in the United States in 1977 (Project Indigo).

The first American space-based radars, which underwent testing on the SEASAT oceanographic satellite (1978) and the Space Shuttle (1981 and 1984), operated in the decimeter wave band and ensured receipt of radar images of terrain sectors with a resolution of 15-25 meters. As the experience of operating radars of this type showed, they can be used for all-weather reconnaissance of naval and ground targets, and also for detecting camouflaged and even dug-in objects (Figure 1 [not reproduced]).

Development of radar reconnaissance satellites under Project Indigo (the satellite was given the name Lacrosse) was assigned to the Martin Marietta Company (head contractor), and creation of the ground data processing equipment was assigned to General Electric. In order to achieve a high resolution (according to some reports, from 0.6 to 3 meters) comparable to that of optical equipment, it was planned to install a centimeter-band radar with aperture synthesizing and equipped with a large-size antenna. According to western press data, a prototype of the radar created under this project underwent testing on the KH-8 Gambit satellite, launched in 1988 to an untypically high orbit for photo-reconnaissance satellites- -about 600 km. The Lacrosse satellite (KH-12 is the other designation) weighs 14-16 tons and has a cylindrical body, to which solar battery panels and a large parabolic radar antenna are attached. It is designed to operate for 5-8 years.

Due to overruns, the cost of the Lacrosse-1 radar reconnaissance satellite launched in 1988 from the Space Shuttle exceeded $1 billion. In the opinion of experts, it was designed, above all, to search for mobile launchers for Soviet ICBM's and track strategic weapon systems beyond staging bases. The radar images were transmitted to the processing center via TDRS repeaters located under the management of NASA and deployed in a geostationary orbit. The Lacrosse-2 was launched in 1991 using a Titan-4 booster rocket from the Western Missile Test Range, which made it possible to increase the orbit inclination and, consequently, the zone of coverage from 57 to 68 degrees.

The radar subsystem (it is planned to build a total of six Lacrosse satellites) has significantly expanded the capabilities of the American visual reconnaissance system for conducting all-weather and round-the-clock photography of objects. After orbital testing of the Lacrosse-1, the decision was made to remove from service (as a less economical variant) the SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft, on which a radar with a resolution of 3 meters and optical equipment for long-range photography with a resolution of 0.3 meters. Comparative characteristics of visual reconnaissance satellites are given in Table 1, and information about launches and parameters of operating orbits is given in Table 2.

The Persian Gulf War (January-March 1991) became the first and most significant conflict where space-based reconnaissance systems played a decisive role in supporting the combat activities of the multinational forces. According to the commander of the unified Space Command of the U.S. Armed Forces, Air Force General Kutyna, the effectiveness of the actions of the multinational forces increased and that of the Iraqi Army decreased thanks to the allies' monopoly on space-based systems. His deputy, Vice Admiral Dougherty, emphasized in this regard that the use of space-based system during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was necessary to support operations of the armed forces in any possible conflicts. During the course of this war, two KH-11 satellites (N 7 and 8) and also a Lacrosse-1 satellite operated as part of the visual reconnaissance system. In November 1990, the orbit of the back-up KH-11 satellite (N 6) was adjusted in order to phase its orbits with other satellites, after which operational use of this satellite began. Despite accelerated preparations, they were unable to put the new satellite (Lacrosse-2) into orbit. It was launched only in March 1991 and therefore could not be used in planning the combat operations. In addition to the four visual reconnaissance satellites, pictures also being received from commercial satellites for reconnaissance of natural resources, such as LANDSAT-4 and -5 (the U.S. EOSAT consortium) and also Spot-1 and -2 (France), were actively used in the interests of visual surveying of the theater of military operations.

Several terminals were deployed in the zone of the conflict for receiving satellite pictures transmitted from the processing center in the vicinity of Washington over channels of the DSCS strategic satellite communications system. The information received was input into automated command and control systems simultaneously with reconnaissance data from other sources, which made it possible to increase by an order of magnitude the effectiveness of reconnaissance. In particular, FIST (Fleet Imagery Support Terminal) terminals were used for rapid transmission of images with a low resolution to warships over microwave communications channels. Fourteen ships of the U.S. Navy were equipped with these terminals. However, as experts note, the high classification of these materials hindered widespread use of overhead visual reconnaissance data in the troops.

About 120 pictures taken from the LANDSAT satellite were used as temporary maps of the territories of Iraq and Kuwait during the planning and conducting of combat operations. However, as American experts noted, the pictures received from the French Spot satellite found wider use in the troops thanks to better resolution (10 meters instead of 30 meters) and also the capability of producing stereo-images of the terrain.

In the zone of the conflict, more than 100 MSS-2 (Mission Support System) terminals were deployed in the interests of the Air Force. They were developed by the Fairchild Company for planning flight routes of combat aviation, taking into account terrain relief and positions of enemy air defense weapons. The MSS-2 used stereo pictures taken from the Spot satellite. Similar systems were developed by McDonnell Douglas (for the Navy) and Horizons and Technology (for the U.S. Marine Corps) for forming cruise missile flight missions according to digital maps of the terrain and supporting preflight training of combat aircraft crews.

Visual reconnaissance assets were used to detect the transfer of Iraqi troops to the southern border four days before the invasion into Kuwait, which, according to American officials, enabled the CIA to predict the possibility of an attack on Kuwait. According to press reports, satellite pictures presented to the King of Saudi Arabia became the deciding argument in his making the decision about the deployment of American troops in his country. During the course of preparing and conducting combat operations, visual reconnaissance satellites ensured receipt of information on the location and movements of units and military equipment of Iraq's armed forces and also were used for observing strategic installations and the activities of defense industry enterprises, the effectiveness of missile and bombing strikes, and for accomplishing other missions facing the U.S. and allied armed forces.

The KH-11 and Lacrosse were developed primarily for conducting strategic visual reconnaissance in the interests of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, therefore, were not used earlier for operational reconnaissance to support the operations of the troop grouping in the theater of military operations. According to estimates of American experts, about 70 percent of the missions assigned to reconnaissance satellites in the Persian Gulf were tactical in nature. Therefore, in the course of preparing and conducting combat operations, complexities arose associated with determining the priorities of reconnaissance requests originating from the various armed services, which led to a decrease in the timeliness of receipt of data by consumers. Other shortcomings were also discovered: the incompatibility of the different transmission and image distribution systems in the troops; insufficient transmission speed of communications channels; and the lack of the necessary number of photo interpreters at headquarters on the theater of military operations.

For the reasons indicated, overhead visual reconnaissance data were not used for retargeting air strike groups to targets remaining after the first strikes. In the opinion of one of the pilots participating in the combat operations, before a combat sortie the pilots had day-old satellite images of targets. They were also unable to solve the problem of timely tracking from space of movements of mobile launchers of Iraqi Scud operational-tactical missiles.

Such characteristics as high resolution and productivity of the KH-11 and Lacrosse, so important when conducting global strategic reconnaissance, proved to be less significant than the frequency of repeat viewing and the timeliness of data processing and transmission necessary for accomplishing missions of target reconnaissance in the theater of military operations. During the course of the Iraqi conflict, they even considered the proposal of using the SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft removed from service earlier.

The lessons of the Persian Gulf War became the impetus for further development of views on using overhead systems for military purposes and also for determining promising directions of developing space-based equipment and land- based assets for processing satellite information.

Based on an analysis of the experience of combat employment of space-based assets in the United States, a redesigning of a number of advanced systems has begun, work has been stepped up to introduce into the troops equipment for the receipt, analysis, and display of satellite information, and unified standards were adopted for the armed forces for transmitting video images. Later on, during exercises they demonstrated the capability of transmitting by radio channel to the strike aircraft overhead images of the area of operations.

In 1992, in accordance with a reorganization of intelligence agencies of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Imagery Agency (NIA) was formed. The main tasks of the new agency involved determining the priority of fulfilling requests for visual reconnaissance and managing the process of collection and distribution of information coming in from reconnaissance aircraft and satellites being used in the interests of the armed forces and CIA for the purpose of increasing the timeliness of reconnaissance when there is a threat of conflicts breaking out.

The cost of a modern imagery satellite is from $500 million to $1.25 billion. In the opinion of American experts, as a result of the considerable duration of the development stage, the equipment of these satellites is usually obsolete by the time it becomes operational. For quicker assimilation of new technologies, it is planned to use small-size experimental satellites, taking into account the results of research being conducted under civilian space programs.

Today they are studying concepts of creating systems of small-size optico-electronic, radar, and electronic reconnaissance satellites which can be quickly manufactured and launched with the aid of light booster rockets in the event crisis situations arise. Such satellites will be able to conduct reconnaissance with less effectiveness (worse resolution) than modern satellites, but should ensure more timely accomplishment of reconnaissance missions in the interests of command authorities of the armed forces in the theater of military operations.

Table 1. Comparative Characteristics of Imagery Satellites                                                                 
Type           Manufacturer             Modification    Launch        Orbit Parameters              Period of     Length         Resolution on      Size of     Method of         
(Program),                              (Years of       Vehicle                                     Existence,    (Diameter),    Terrain, meters    Frame on    Transmitting      
Designation                             Operation)                                                  days          meters;                           Terrain,    Reconnaissance    
                                                                                                                  Weight, tons                      meters      Information       
Altitude and   Inclination, degrees     
KH-8           Lockheed                 Base            Titan-3B,     400-480             110;      7-90,         8 (1.5);       0.3, Up to 0.2     15-20,      Capsules;         
(920th),                                (1966-1981),    Titan-34B     (125-155),          96.5,     118-125       3.5, 1.5                          15-20       Capsules and      
Gambit,                                 Experimental                  320-330[.sup]1[/]    96.5;                   (3); 4.2                                      over radio        
Samos-M                                 (1982-1984)                   (130-150)           97.3                                                                  channel           
KH-9           Lockheed                 Base            Titan-3D,     260-275 (140-170)   96.4      40-275        15 (3);        1.5                180-200     Capsules, over    
(647th),                                (1971-1986)     Titan-35D                                                 12-13          (OFR)[.sup]2[/],    (OfR)       radio channel     
LASP,                                                   (from 1983)                                                              0.3 (DFR)          18-20                         
Hexagon, Big                                                                                                                                        (DFR))                        
KH-11          Tomson-Ramo-Wuldridge    Base            Titan-3D,     530 (270), 1020     96.9,     2-3 years,    14-15 (3);     0.15, Up to 0.1    2-3         Over radio        
(1010th),                               (1976-1982),    Titan-34D,    (270)               97.8      4-5 years     11-12, 14-15                      (DOER);     channel via SDS   
Kenan,                                  Improved        Titan-4                                                   (3); 12-14                        2-3         satellite; Same   
Improved                                (from 1984)                                                                                                 (DOER),                       
Crystal                                                                                                                                             100-200                       
Lacrosse       McDonnell Douglas        Base (from      Space         704 (676)           57 and    5-8 years     15 (3);        0.6-3              2-3         Over radio        
(Indigo),                               1988)           Shuttle,                          68                      14-16                             (DRLR),     channel via       
Lacrosse                                                Titan-4                                                                                     100-200     TDRS satellite    
1. 537 km in 1982.                                                                 
2. Here and hereafter: OFR--survey photo-reconnaissance; DFR--detailed photo-reconnaissance; DOER--detailed optico-electronic reconnaissance; OOER--survey optico-electronic      
reconnaissance; DRLR--detailed radar reconnaissance; ORLR--survey radar reconnaissance.                                                                 
Table 2. Launches and Operating Orbit Parameters of KH-11 and Lacrosse Satellites            
Satellite      Launch Date       Rocket       Orbit Parameters      Number    Date           
Designation    (international    Booster                            of        Satellite      
               number)                                              Orbit     Removed from   
                                                                    Plane     Orbit or       
Apogee         Inclination,      
(Perigee),     degrees           
km             (orbital          
               period, hrs)      
KH-11-1        19/12/76          Titan-3D     520        96.9       1         29/1/79        
               (761,251)                      (245)      (92.4)                              
KH-11-2        14/6/78           Titan-3D     539        96.9       1         23/8/81        
               (78,601)                       (210)      (91.9)                              
KH-11-3        7/2/80 (80,101)   Titan-3D     511        96.9       2         30/10/82       
                                              (224)      (91.9)                              
KH-11-4        3/9/81 (81,851)   Titan-3D     507        96.9       1         23/11/84       
                                              (276)      (91.9)                              
KH-11-5        17/11/82          Titan-3D     532        96.9       2         10/8/85        
               (821,111)                      (286)      (92)                                
KH-11-6        4/12/84           Titan-34D    954        97.8       1         10/11/94       
               (841,221)                      (281)      (97)                                
KH-11          29/8/85           Titan-34D    Unsuccessful launch   2         -              
KH-11-7        27/10/87          Titan-34D    1012       97.8       2         11/6/92        
               (87,901)                       (242)      (97.3)                              
KH-11-8        6/11/88           Titan-34D    1039       97.8       1         Operational    
               (88,991)                       (280)      (97.9)               in orbit       
Lacrosse-1     3/12/88           Space        704        57         -         Operational    
               (881,062)         Shuttle      (676)      (98.3)               in orbit       
Lacrosse-2     8/3/91 (91,171)   Titan-4      696        68         -         Operational    
                                              (676)      (98.3)               in orbit       
KH-11-9        29/11/92          Titan-4      1030       97.8       2         Operational    
               (92,831)                       (265)      (97.5)               in orbit       

It is envisioned to expand the capabilities of the American overhead visual reconnaissance system in the late 1990's by launching new commercial satellites for remote surveying of the earth with a high resolution (1-3 meters). Their development is linked to the intensive development of an international market for overhead photographs, the annual sales volume of which is $400 million (in the future, a stable increase in demand for overhead video and photographs is expected).

After the unsuccessful launch of the LANDSAT-6 satellite in 1993, the U.S. position in this market, where France, Russia, Japan, India, and EC countries also actively compete, became critical. In these conditions, the American administration issued licenses to three groups of firms for creating commercial satellites for remote surveying of the earth based on the latest military technologies, authorizing the sale of detailed photographs to foreign states (with observance of certain restrictions).

In particular, the firms World View Images and CTA are developing a small-size satellite with equipment ensuring a resolution of about 3 meters (may be launched in 1995). The Eyeglass International Corporation (the firms JDI Systems, Orbital Science, and Eyetech Optical Systems) is planning to build a satellite (estimated cost of $150-200 million). The satellite, which is scheduled to be put into orbit in 1997 (Figure 2 [not reproduced]), will make it possible to receive photographs with a resolution of about 1 meter and will have a repeat viewing frequency of the same areas equal to 1.5 days (in 1992, the firm Eyetech conducted negotiations about selling a remote surveying satellite to the United Arab Emirates, but did not receive a license from the U.S. government).

The most improved satellite, which is being developed by the Space Imaging consortium, made up of the Lockheed, E-Systems, and Bell Aerospace, may be put into orbit in 1997. It is anticipated that in addition to a high resolution (about 1 meter), the space photographs from it will have good metric characteristics, which will make it possible to determine with a high accuracy the coordinates of targets depicted on it. The estimated cost of two satellites and three ground stations is about $500 million. The operating life of the satellite in orbit will be about five years. At hearings in Congress, it was proposed to speed up development of the Lockheed satellite for the purpose of subsequent purchase of photographs to meet the requirements of the armed forces as a measure making it possible to reduce spending for overhead visual reconnaissance.

After the Persian Gulf War, it became obvious that an overhead visual reconnaissance system is a necessary infrastructure component of a state possessing modern armed forces. In addition to the United States, Russia, and China, France will possess an overhead visual reconnaissance system in 1995 (Project Helios). Member-countries of the West European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and certain Arab states are also considering the possibility of creating such systems. However, it is economically more feasible for the majority of them to purchase photographs of those areas of adjacent states that pose the greatest interest for them.

This circumstance also predetermines the intensive development in the United States of high-resolution remote- photography satellites and the rapid increase in sales of overhead photographs on the international market. These satellites in the future should occupy an intermediate position in the U.S. visual reconnaissance system between KH-type super-high resolution (0.1-0.2 meters) satellites and natural-resource reconnaissance satellites accomplishing low-resolution (10 meters) multispectral survey reconnaissance. Deployment of the receiver stations of these satellites in the theater of military operations will make it possible to reduce the time it takes to get the photographs to the consumers of the information.

Despite the reduction in funds being allocated for overhead visual reconnaissance systems, the U.S. military- political leadership believes that improving these systems is an effective direction of increasing the combat might of the armed forces in conditions of a reduction in their numerical strength. The main trends of development of reconnaissance satellites involve expanding the capabilities of on-board equipment for collecting and preliminary processing of data, which will make it possible to simplify consumers' ground equipment, and also improving the processes of processing, analysis, and distribution of reconnaissance information in order to increase the timeliness of its dissemination to users of various levels, down to tactical-level commanders, and on a time scale ensuring effective combat employment of forces and assets.

Footnote *For beginning of article, see: ZARUBEZHNOYE VOYENNOYE OBOZRENIYE, 1995, No 2, pp 39-42--Editor.

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