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Military Traffic Models

The United States embarked on a major expansion in the number and capability of military satellites in the late 1980s. The September 1988 launch on the Shuttle of the first Lacrosse imaging radar intelligence satellite was the beginning of an unprecedented increase in the scope of American low-altitude intelligence systems. Over subsequent five years, the Navstar navigation satellite system was brought up to full strength, and the new Milstar satellites entered.(1) In all, the number of operational American military satellites grew from about 60 in 1984, to over 90 by 1994.

This expansion was a product of the increased integration of military space assets with terrestrial military planning, as well as the increased integration of space systems with each other. Virtually every major combat unit in the American military - ships, aircraft and ground units - will be equipped with Navstar navigation receivers. Reception of imagery from intelligence satellites, once tightly restricted to a few intelligence agencies, was extended to tactical command centers around the globe.

Just as terrestrial miliary forces are increasingly dependent on satellites, these military satellites are increasingly dependent on each other. The KH-12 photographic reconnaissance satellite depends on weather satellites to predict areas that are sufficiently free of cloud cover to permit images to be made, on Navstar to provide a fix on the location of the images it produces, and on communications satellite to relay these images to ground processing stations. The Lacrosse imaging radar satellite might provide warning that the launch of an anti-satellite weapon was imminent, and DSP early warning satellites might provide notification that such a launch had taken place, permitting the KH-12 to attempt to maneuver out of harms way, on the basis of orders transmitted via Milstar.

The range of space systems available to support the Gulf Conflict raises a very interesting question of timing. If the war had taken place even three years ago, it is unlikely that the contribution of military space systems would have been nearly so great. As it was, the United States entered the conflict with an unprecedented array of operational space systems in orbit. But press reports notwithstanding, none of the American launches during Desert Shield and Desert Storm were in response to the crisis.(2) All of these flights had been planned long in advance of the Iraqi invasion.

The imaging intelligence order of battle in space included an absolutely unprecedented number of satellites, with one Lacrosse imaging radar satellite, three of the older KH-11 Kennan digital imaging satellites, and one of the newer advanced Keyholes (sometimes referred to in the press as the KH-12).(3) This total of five imaging satellites is the largest number of imaging satellites that the United States has ever had in space at one time, in stark contrast with the single KH-11 in orbit as recently as five years ago, shortly after the Challenger accident. During the late 1970's and early 1980's American imaging intelligence would normally have consisted of two KH-11's in orbit all of the time, with single KH-9 Hexagon in orbit providing film return about six months out of the year.

In addition, the capabilities of each of these satellites were far greater than previous satellites. The Lacrosse for the first time provided an all weather capability. The Advanced Keyholes operate in much higher orbits than they older KH-11's, and as a result they provide two useful passes per day over the target area rather than the single pass that was customary with the older KH-11. This meant an average of a dozen useable passes over the theater of operations a day at average intervals of about two hours. In some cases there would be two satellites in the sky simultaneously, and at no point would there be more five hours without having a satellite over the theater of operations. With each of these satellites producing images at the rate of one every five seconds, there were literally hundreds of pictures a day of the theater of operations.

The United States also had very robust electronic and signals intelligence order of battle. At least one geostationary Magnum signals intelligence satellite was available for intercepting low strength broadcasts. In addition at least a dozen of the White Cloud Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellites conducted radio location for higher power transmitters, along with a trio of sub-satellites that were launched with the advanced Keyhole launched in June 1990. Altogether there were perhaps 15 or 20 signals intelligence satellites that were also in operation.

There were at least two Defense Meteorological Support Program weather satellites in operation at the outset of Desert Shield, with a third launched in early January. There were somewhere between 15 to 16 the Navstar global positioning system satellites in operation during the latter stages of the conflict, as well as at least a pair of FLTSATCOM and at least a pair of DSCS III communication satellites available for communication support in the theater. And the US Military used images acquired from SPOT and LANDSAT for updating mapping products for the forces in the theater.

Overall, the satellites were of higher quality and more numerous than has been the case at any time in the past and more numerous and more capable than would have been the case even five years ago.


However, with the end of the Cold War, many plans for future expansion have been scaled back, reducing demands on launch services.

Military and non-military activities in space are increasingly interdependent. Terrestrial military forces becoming ever more dependent on an ever-growing numbers of operational national security spacecraft. The division between military and non-military space activities has never been clear, and is becoming increasingly blurred. The United States operates separate military and civilian low altitude weather satellites (which are physically quite similar and made by the same company), though the military uses data from both systems.

The Defense Department is a major customer of commercial communications satellite networks, and the American military mapping community is the leading customer of the commercial Landsat remote sensing system. Military and civilian spacecraft hardware are increasingly indistinguishable. Hughes is building the American Navy's new communications satellite using its HS-601 spacecraft that is also being used by commercial customers.

Intelligence Program Reductions

A number of developments suggest that an ambitious program for expanded intelligence satellite coverage in order to verify the START offense nuclear arms agreement was abandoned, like many other military systems, a victim of the end of the Cold War. The expansion of treaty verification satellite programs was largely been the results of the efforts of Oklahoma Democratic Senator David Boren, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In early 1988 he led a move for a six year, $6 billion plan,(4) saying that if the plan were not approved, that he was prepared to oppose ratification of the START agreement. The center-pieces of the his plan was the procurement of six additional Lacrosse imaging radar satellites over six years, at over $500 million each, for verification of a START arms reduction agreement.(5) In addition, as much as $5 billion was programmed(6) for a new system of satellites that would be deployed in the mid-1990's(7), or no later than the 1997-99 timeframe(8) to monitor Soviet laser testing.

These satellites would have been in addition to the Advanced Keyhole (sometimes improperly referred to as the KH-12) and Lacrosse satellites already planned for procurement. These previously programmed systems would have probably included annual launches of one of each of these satellites, resulting in perhaps three or four of type each spacecraft operational in orbit at any one time by the early 1990's.(9) The additional satellites proposed by Senator Boren would have been launched at a rate of one each year, adding a further three or four operational spacecraft in orbit, 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, in contrast to photographic imaging satellites, whose coverage is frequently obscured by clouds.

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.(10) Director of Central Intelligence William Webster argued against the plan, stating that "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."(11) 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."(12)

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.(13) And the new Bush Administration recommended termination of the program in early 1989,(14) much to the displeasure of Senator Boren,(15) who eventually succeeded in obtaining a commitment by President Bush to fund his program,(16) although with delays of one to two years.(17) The plan once again faced opposition from the House Appropriations Committee,(18) which was once again overcome by the end of 1989,(19) finally with Webster's support.(20)

In contrast to prior years, 1990 was not marked by public controversy over the Boren initiative, but there are at least three indications that the Boren Plan had been quietly abandoned by year's end.

The first suggestion of the plan's demise came in mid-1990, with indications of reductions in the planned launch rate for the Titan 4 space booster, which will place the Lacrosse and Advanced Keyhole satellites into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Prior plans had called for launching these rockets at a rate of three per year, sufficient to accommodate the single Advanced Keyhole and Lacrosse that are the baseline program's annual requirement, as well as the additional Lacrosse envisioned under the Boren Plan. But by the end of 1990, Titan 4 launch rates had been scaled back to two per year, suggesting that the additional Boren-inspired Lacrosses had been dropped.

The second indication of the demise of the Boren Plan was found in comments by John Keliher, Staff Director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI, known as hip-see to the cognoscenti). Addressing a February 1991 meeting sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Keliher down-played the prospects for large expenditures on intelligence systems solely for verification, observing that "You won't get Congress to buy big buck items for arms control." Concluding that arms control verification will require "piggy-backing" on current intelligence assets, he noted that "Arms control is an adjunct of national security and defense."(21)

The third and most conclusive indication was found in the Fiscal Year 1992 Defense budget request, specifically the P-1 Procurement Programs budget document. The line item under Air Force Missile Procurement entitled "Special Programs" is generally regarded as the National Reconnaissance Office budget for buying satellites. In 1987 the budget for this item was $1.8 billion, growing to $2.1 billion in 1988. But following the Boren initiative, the budget grew to $2.8 billion in 1989, and almost $3 billion for 1990. Under the Boren program, the budget was slated to remain at this level in subsequent years. But the budget request submitted in February 1991 indicated that "Special Programs" spending was slated to receive only $2.5 billion annually from 1991 through 1993. This half-billion dollar annual reduction is consistent with the elimination of one Lacrosse satellite (costing about a half-billion dollars) from each year's spending plan.

Missile Defense Program Reductions

The initial deployment plans the SDI were established in August 1987, when the Defense Acquisition Board established requirements for a system that could be deployed in the mid-to-late 1990's to defend American land-based ICBM silos from a Soviet counter-force attack.(22) The Phase One system was intended to intercept half of the Soviet's force of 308 SS-18 ICBM's (the core of the Soviet counter-silo capability), as well as thirty percent of all Soviet missile warheads, including those carried on SS-18s.(23) This initial operational Strategic Defense System included both space-based and ground-based weapon and sensor systems. Each year since 1987 the precise number and type of these systems changed, based on changing perceptions of operational capabilities.(24) Estimates of deployment costs dropped from $115 billion to $69 billion.

The hallmark of the SDI since 1983 had been an initial layer of space-based interceptors, to home in on the hot exhaust plume of hostile missiles during the first few minutes of their flight. This boost-phase layer is intended to destroy missiles before they can deploy multiple warheads and decoy warheads that would stress the performance of subsequent layers of the defense. Originally, plans for this layer of the system called for Space-Based Interceptor (SBI) rockets, each weighing about 100 kilograms, with between five and ten interceptor rockets carried on a satellite that would also carry target tracking sensors. The 1987 plan called for approximately 3,000 interceptors to be carried on approximately 300 Carrier Vehicle satellites, while the 1988 plan called for about 1,500 interceptors deployed on about 150 Carrier Vehicle satellites.(25)

A major change in these plans came in early 1989 with adoption of the "Brilliant Pebbles" (BP) concept (the name implying improved capabilities compared with the SBI "smart rocks").(26) Each Brilliant Pebble would orbit separately, making a less attractive target for Soviet attack. This dispersal, as well as advanced construction techniques, would also permit each Brilliant Pebble to weigh about 40 to 50 kilograms, less than half that of the traditional SBI. Each Brilliant Pebble would have its own missile tracking sensors, eliminate the need for the BSTS satellite sensor. And computers on-board each Brilliant Pebble would direct each Pebble to its target, eliminating the need for expensive communications systems for ground control.(27) The initial plan for Brilliant Pebbles called for 4,614 to be procured at a cost of between $1.1 million and $1.4 million each.(28)

The initial sensor system of an SDI system was the Booster Surveillance and Tracking System (BSTS), a network of about a five to ten large satellites (probably in near-geosynchronous orbits) that would detect the launch of Soviet missiles, and provide initial tracking of their trajectories. BSTS would relay target data to Space-Based Interceptor (SBI) platforms, orbiting a few hundred kilometers above the Earth. In 1989 the competition between Lockheed and Grumman to determine which company will build BSTS was deferred until 1991 to provide more time for work on sensors and computers,(29) with the initial flight of the BSTS satellite planned for 1995. Deployment of the BSTS was also claimed to provide improved early warning of missile attack, and enhanced intelligence collection and verification capabilities. The BSTS would have been much larger and more capable that the current DSP early warning satellites. The current DSP requires about 1275 watts of power, while BSTS power requirements ranged from 4 to 6 kilowatts. The DSP spacecraft sensors have focal plane arrays with about 6,700 sensor elements, while the Grumman scanning array has about 80,000 sensor elements and the Lockheed staring array sensor has up to 8 million sensor elements.(30) But the cost of a DSP satellite is about $350 million, while the cost of a BSTS satellite is closer to $1 billion. There large number of DSP spacecraft under contract,(31) led to doubts about the near-term need to replace this system with BSTS. And the drastic increase in performance capability has led to concerns that BSTS might violate the ABM Treaty.(32)

The Zenith Star space-based chemical laser was a major SDI directed energy project. This project began in late 1986 as the Laser Integrated Space Experiment, the center-piece of the effort to implement the Reagan Administration's reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty. By 1989 the space test was intended to demonstrate, prior to a decision to deploy the initial phase of SDI, the availability of a directed energy weapon that could cope with faster flying Soviet missiles.(33) Although the large amounts of fuel required by this type of laser limit its attractiveness, the technology was relatively well understood, and space-basing avoids the uncertainties of propagating a laser beam through the atmosphere. Ground testing of the 2 megawatt Alpha chemical laser began in 1989.(34) The space-based 2 megawatt Zenith Star test, which was initially planned for 1994, was subsequently delayed to December 1996,(35) with a smaller Complementary Space Experiment orbital test of a chemical laser, with a brightness about one percent that of Zenith Star, planned for 1993.(36)

After more than seven years of effort devoted to development of components and systems oriented toward defending against a concerted attack by Soviet missiles, the Strategic Defense Initiative was reoriented in late 1990 into a Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system, to defense against tactical and theater missile threats, as well as limited ICBM strikes against the United States. In addition, plans for the components of the operational Strategic Defense System underwent significant changes, with a new generation of systems replacing those that were the focus of activity in the 1980s. This reorientation of the goals of the SDI program was in part a reaction to Congressional budget actions, and in part a response to the political opportunity presented by the Gulf conflict. Expressing growing disenchantment with the technical and military prospects of an anti-missile system oriented toward the declining Soviet threat, the Congress voted significant reductions in the SDI budget, as well as a major restructuring of the SDI program.(37)

By late 1990, the requirements for an operational Strategic Defense System were significantly reduced. The new Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system is intended to intercept up to 100 long-range ICBM or SLBM warheads aimed at the US (in contrast to the 3,000 warheads that were to be intercepted under the Phase One requirements), as well as to defend American forces and allies against tactical and theater missiles (a requirement which was not addressed by the Phase One System).(38) This new system will be deployed in three stages: a Transportable Protection Against Limited Strikes (T-PALS) which would be an air-transportable system to defend against theater missiles; a Continental US system (C-PALS) with ground-based interceptors deployed at multiple sites and Brilliant Eyes sensors; and the global system (G-PALS) with space-based Brilliant Pebbles interceptors.(39)

The 30-fold reduction the scope of the mission of defending North America has not led to a similarly drastic reduction in the size of the defense required: the 1,000 space-based components is about 25% the former number; and the 1,000 ground-based interceptor are 50% the previous number. The total estimated cost of deploying the GPALS system was in the range of about $40 billion.

The "Brilliant Eyes" concept marked a further step in the SDI's evolution away from discrimination of real warheads from decoy warheads during the mid-course phase of their flight, as they coast through space prior to reentering the Earth's atmosphere. When the program was initiated in 1983, there was considerable optimism that sensitive thermal sensors could detect minute differences in the heat emitted from real warheads and decoys, enabling the system to attack the real warheads and ignore the decoys. Although subsequent work on using laser radars to detect slight differences in the vibration patterns of warheads and decoys showed some promise, over the years the mid-course discrimination problem seemed to grow increasingly intractable.

These concerns had a major impact on stalling the development the Space Surveillance and Tracking System (SSTS), the primary mid-course discrimination sensor. By the end of the decade, relatively little progress had been made toward deploying this network of up to twenty satellites, orbiting at an altitude of approximately 5,000 kilometers, would use cryogenically refrigerated long-wave infrared sensors for tracking and discrimination.

The Brilliant Eyes constellation of satellites would replace the SSTS mid-course sensors.(40) These 80 spacecraft would orbit at altitudes about twice that of the Brilliant Pebbles, or somewhat less than 1,000 kilometers.(41) Each spacecraft would be equipped with a combination of long-wavelength infrared, visible light and laser radar sensors, for tracking targets in mid-course.(42) According to SDIO Director Henry Cooper, these satellites "would provide cueing and/or other information that would be helpful in accomplishing the discrimination task."(43)


1. Rawles, J., "Military Satellites: The Next Generation," Defense Electronics, May 1988, pp 46-63.

2. Furnis, Tim, "Satellites Launched for Desert Shield," Flight International, 21 November 1990, page 11.

3. Covault, Craig, "Recon Satellites Lead Allied Intelligence Effort," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 4 February 1991, page 25-26.

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

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

6. "A Secret Laser Hunter," Newsweek, 3 october 1988, page 7.

7. "CIA Chief Warns Congress Not to Cut Recon Satellites," Aerospace Daily, 30 November 1989, page 323.

8. Foley, Theresa, "Monitoring Soviet Space Weapons Adds to Demand for U.S. Intelligence," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 27 February 1989, page 22-23.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. "Arms Control Verification Will Probably Not Spawn a New Defense Market," Inside the Pentagon, 21 February 1991, page 16.

22. Gilmartin, Trish, "Pentagon Advisory Panel Chairman Urges Gradual Evolutionary Approach to SDI," Defense News, 25 July 1988, p. 30.

23. Norman, Colin, "Cut Price Plan Offered for SDI Deployment," Science, 7 October 1988, pp 24-25.

24. Zimmerman, Peter, "SDI Performs Annual Mutation," Defense News, 21 January 1991, page 24.

25. Stroble, Warren, 'Ex-Head of SDI Touts Brilliant Pebbles Plan," The Washington Times, 14 March 1989, page A4.

26. Bennet, Ralph, "Brilliant Pebbles," Reader's Digest, September 1989, page 128-132 provides a useful though uncritical background.

27. This description of Brilliant Pebbles is based on Wood, Lowell, "Brilliant Pebbles Missile Defense Concept Advocated by Livermore Scientist," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 13 June 1988, page 151-155, and Wood, Lowell, "Concerning Advanced Architectures for Strategic Defense," Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Preprint UCRL-98424, 13 March 1988.

28. "SDIO Plans to Buy 4600 Brilliant Pebble Interceptors," Defense Daily, 13 February 1990, page 231.

29. "BSTS Choice Delayed for More Work," Defense Week, 25 September 1989, page 5.

30. "Department of Defense Appropriations for 1990," United States House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee, 101st congress, 1st Session, part 7, page 692.

31. "Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991," United States Senate Armed Services Committee, 101st Congress, 1st Session, pages 197-9.

32. "Department of Defense Appropriations for 1990," United States House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee, 101st Congress, 1st Session, part 7, page 685.

33. "Chemical Lasers Step Up With Zenith Star," Military Space, 19 December 1988, pp 1, 8.

34. "Alpha Chemical Laser to Fire at Full Power Next Month," SDI Monitor, 10 November 1989, page 257-8.

35. Kiernan, Vincent, "SDI Budget Problems Slip Space Testing of Zenith Star Laser," Space News, 9 October 1989, page 20.

36. Kiernan, Vincent, "Scaled-Down Test of Zenith Star Concept Under DOD Review," Space News, 11 December 1989.

37. Morrison, David, "SDI: The Living Dead," National Journal, 24 November 1990, page 2846-2850.

38. "SDIO Retools for Limited Threats," SDI Monitor, 21 December 1990, page 281-282.

39. "SDIO Works Up Three Limited-Strike Protection Plans," SDI Monitor, 18 January 1991, page 21.

40. Grossman, Elaine, "Small and Light 'Brilliant Eyes' Could Replace Three SDI Surveillance Systems," Inside the Army, 28 May 1990, page 15.

41. Strobel, Warren, "Limited SDI Program Might Cost $9 Billion," The Washington Times, 1 February 1991, page A3.

42. "SDI Constellation Grows in Brilliance," Military Space, 14 January 1991, page 3-4.

43. Bates, Kelly, "SDIO's Cooper Says U.S. Could Deploy Strategic Defense System for $40 billion," Inside the Pentagon, 20 December 1990, page 10-11.

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