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Dual Purpose Civil Military Space


By Charles S. Sheldon II*

1971-1975/ 1976-1980


It is difficult to pinpoint military use of satellites when the same kinds of missions are normally carried out for civil purposes as well. As a consequence, no attempt can be made here to quantify what part of the hardware or the usage of shared hardware is for military purposes. The primary purpose of this section is to discuss in more general terms that such military uses do lie within some categories of flights.


The Soviet Union does not name or even identify by appearance and capacity many of its launch vehicles, giving reasons of military security, although internal Soviet missile designations revealed at the SALT-11 talks have been published. (26) Only after many years have pictures of some been released or models put on display. It is a satisfaction that these pictures and models when made available are consistent with the previously derived inferential analyses based upon the performance of these vehicles and the few facts disclosed by the Soviet Government.

The original Soviet ICBM which was brought into both missile and space use in 1957 was put on public display in 1967 under the label Vostok. The same launch vehicle but with a longer upper stage is used for Soyuz. Neither label is sufficiently descriptive for the purposes of this study, as this original first stage and the two kinds of upper stages are used for many different missions. Likewise, the smallest of the Soviet space orbital launchers is now on display labeled Kosmos. This is not sufficiently descriptive either because the Kosmos name has been applied to payloads launched by all five basic first stages. It may be worth emphasizing that in the absence of any comprehensive and consistent public use by the Soviet Government of a nomenclature system, all those in general use in the West have been invented in the West. In the early days of orbital flight a great variety of names of space vehicles purportedly of Soviet origin appeared in magazines, but they seem to have had no more basis than the fanciful track up the mountainside for the winged launchers which in fact never existed.

Gradually over a period of years, Soviet missiles of the surface-to-surface type were assigned numbers with the prefix SS by the U.S. military services, and as these missiles were better and better defined, their designators and approximate characteristics were made available to the trade press or showed up in congressional testimony and designated SS-4, SS-5, SS-6, etc. Some of these missiles such as the SS-7 and SS-11 achieved a prominent place in the Soviet arsenal without being clearly seen by the Western public, and they were not used as space launchers. When missiles were seen to the extent their configurations were recognizable by the military branches of the NATO powers, code names such as Sandal, Skean, Sapwood . . . were assigned, and these also in time reached the trade press. Military authorities in the West also have created a nomenclature system for space launch vehicles, whether of military missile or other origin, carrying the prefix SL. Some years ago, in the absence of anything better in the open literature, Sheldon devised a system which is being used in this report because its use has spread throughout much of the Western world, and it meets at least minimum needs. (27)

The basic scheme is to assign a capital letter to each basic first stage, and then to use a number for the principal upper stage of the particular launch vehicle, and a second number if the earlier upper stage is replaced. A final stage is indicated by a small letter generally indicative of its capability such as e—escape, m—maneuvering, r—reentry, and h—higher performance. When discussing the appearance of a new launch vehicle from Plesetsk, now known to be F-2, Sheldon indicated that he would call the next completely new vehicle "J," having used "h" as a suffix even if tentatively, and later been less sure of the "h" classification in the absence of proof of the use of high energy fuels, which was his original speculation. (28)

Figure 6 shows the Soviet stable of launch vehicles together with the corresponding alphanumeric designation. It must be emphasized that the representations of the variants of the D and F vehicles are to some extent speculative.


A previous section explained the Meteor weather satellite system which is a general purpose activity serving many customers. Weather reports are important to agriculture, fisheries, water resource management, and many other economic users. Weather reports are especially important to aviation and shipping services of any description. Every military branch in any nation also requires weather information. In the United States , the weather satellites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and NASA are coordinated for data purposes with a Defense Meteorological Satellite System, and hence the flow of information from all these systems moves into the mainstream of shared weather reporting.

It would not be credible if the Meteor system results of the Soviet Union were not made available to their military users as well as the national economy.

Philip J. Klass, the senior electronics editor of Aviation Week magazine, has long believed that the Soviet Union has a military weather satellite system as does the United States . He credits the B-l launched small satellites from Plesetsk as the carriers of such cameras, because he has found some correlations of launch times of these with Soviet military observation recoverable flights. He suggests such military weather satellites guide the larger recoverable's in their expenditure of photographic film. This report does not accept this hypothesis because it is believed by now there would be some direct evidence in signals from these craft if this were the case. One can conceive of such signals being in frequencies and emitted at places in the interior of the Soviet Union to hide their function from Western listeners, but this represents a degree of security more extreme for a relatively passive mission which is out of proportion to Soviet security in other military space missions.

The Meteor satellites and certain seasonal flights of the military photographic recoverable series flown to high latitudes are used to give weather coverage of the Soviet Northern Seas Route across the top of Eurasia . Soviet naval vessels are moved between sucli ports as Murmansk or Archangel and Petropavlovsk or Vladivostok through this route, when ice conditions permit, saving the long trip around Africa (or Suez , when open).


Another chapter of this report has also discussed communications by satellite, using the Molniya system. Again, it is impossible to say what proportion of total traffic handled through Molniya is of a military nature. The Russians have announced the system not only handles television broadcasts but \also telephone, telegraph, and other data transmission. We know that the Molniya is used as a relay for space-related data transmitted between satellites and ocean tracking ships, to extend this link on to Yevpatoriya and Kaliningrad (Korolev), among other points.

There are now more Molniya satellites active than are required for likely civil purposes. For example, the Molniya 1 satellites operate in one frequency range, while a successor Molniya 2 series operates at higher international frequencies, both in support of the Orbita ground station system. As described earlier, each of these Molniya systems keeps a Molniya 1 and a Molniya 2 always in sight of the home territories by spacing the orbits 90 degrees apart, with four type 1 and four type 2 satellites in operation. As of this writing, the Molniya 3 series do not yet make up a complete pattern of four. By Soviet description, Molniya 2 now takes care of regular domestic television programs, and Molniya 3 has an operational capability for color television (as well as probably serving the Soviet-American hot line link). But Molniya 1 replacement flights continue to be made. Mindful that in the United States , some older trunk telephone links not up to current commercial standards are leased to the Government, one wonders whether the Molniya 1 satellites are not relegated to governmental uses, including military message traffic and data links? But the analogy could be pushed too far, as in the U.S.S.R. the military may have a claim on better facilities than individual Soviet citizens making telephone calls.

This leaves the question of Molniya IS, the synchronous communications satellite in 24-hour orbit. The general-use link in such an orbit was to have been called Statsionar and to use international frequencies. Instead the only satellite positively known to be used for communications purposes is in the Molniya 1 series, and after the launch, nothing more has been said about its use. Did it fail, or is it part of a military system of communications?


Geodesy is both a military and a civilian interest activity. The Russians correctly identify U.S. geodetic satellites as performing a military function, and all three U.S. military services have flown such satellites. Military operations use large volumes of maps, and their grids must provide an accurate link and reference to places marked on the maps. Maps which might be accurate for one part of the world could not always be related to those in other parts of the world, especially across oceans and polar regions. This is occasioned in part because the Earth is anything but a wholly regular sphere. Defining the geoid (the Earth's surface) is a long range task with many observations and much computer time necessary to the process. As soon as the Russians and the Americans had ICBM's, this military need became urgent. It does little good to develop a missile which has an accuracy over great distance of a few meters, if the locations of potential targets may be off in relation to the missile launch site by as much as several kilometers.

The Soviet Union says it does geodesy from space, but it has not identified specific flights except for its indirect use of both Soviet and U.S. space payloads as sighting targets for some exercises in triangulation. Because the Russian military need is real, and they have not identified such flights, it suggests they apply their military secrecy rules to withhold such flight information, as well as the geodetic results. They are obviously mindful of the military use not only because of the implicit need for missile purposes: They also are thought to add distortions to published atlases of Soviet territories to throw off users of these data. We know they have deliberately to this day through 1975 continued to publish the wrong coordinates for the Baykonur Cosmodrome.

It must also be stressed that scientific and civil uses of geodesy are so important that the United States has also operated unclassified programs in geodesy, and there is international sharing of many geodetic findings. The one-time urgent need for military data and the secrecy maintained about that collection effort has for the most part disappeared. Some of the scientific efforts require even greater accuracy, as for example to measure continental drift, or slippage along earthquake fault lines.

Geodetic work may be pursued by many means. Traditionally, it was a slow process of many years of sending out surveying parties who measured the sides of interlinked triangles from one mountain top or land mark to the next. Today satellites provide triangulation opportunities which can indeed link the grid patterns of the whole world. The United States has found useful developing and applying parallel systems for geodetic studies. Passive balloons at relatively high orbital positions permit sighting over great distances, at least from one island or even one continent to another. Various radio techniques of accurately tuned and calibrated signals are another means. On two Star Flash satellites in the Discoverer series a very intensive strobe light could be detected over great distances by ground stations which knew where and when to look. Some of these radio and strobe light signals not only involve pointing accuracies, but also precise time measurements now possible with the improved time standards which modern science has provided.

In some of the NASA, unclassified geodetic satellites, combinations of several of these techniques have been put into a single payload. In a sense the first geodetic satellite was Vanguard 1 which showed the world to be slightly pear-shaped. The NASA geodetic work is well discussed in the open literature, and the logic of the different methods is such that probably the Russians also use radio signals, navigation satellites, strobe lights, and combinations of these devices for their geodetic work. Presumably their geodetic work results have kept pace with their military and scientific needs.

Because the Russians have not identified geodetic flights, this study will have to limit itself to selecting inferential candidate flights for this purpose.

The Russians have also acknowledged the use of satellites for mapping purposes, but likewise have not identified particular flights, so the program is presumably buried within the Kosmos family.

The United States has put together uncontrolled maps of surface features such as the mosaics con structured from Landsat pictures which cover all of the contiguous United States and Alaska . Individual areas have been shown in maplike form in photographs returned by Skylab, other manned flights, and the Landsats. If the United States has also done carefully controlled mapping tied to the geoid, with all the necessary rectification, such maps have not been made public.

The Soviet Union has released an absolute minimum of satellite pictures of any description taken of Earth—mostly a few fuzzy reproductions of general terrain and clouds, taken from the manned flights, some global views from Zond payloads, plus weather satellite views.

Hence if high quality mapping has been done by either country, its products have been held back by public information restrictions.


While navigation help from satellites is likely to become a universal service for many classes of ships and aircraft, the early uses of such systems have been military, and the sponsorship of flights has been military. In the United States , the Transit system was developed by and for the Navy, becoming an essential element in the total Polaris submarine and missile system. Later Transit was withdrawn from public discussion during the period when the United States Department of Defense operated under the greatest restrictions on public information. It has reemerged as discussable today.

The Soviet navigation satellite system has been advertised by the Russians as in operation, but they have not identified any of the flights. It is almost certainly among the Kosmos flights. They have given no separate and distinctive name as they have to Meteor and Molniya. Because the Russians also have long range submarine launched missiles, they probably used their system also to support submarine operations, and by now may be using them more widely, as does the United States . One is encouraged in this interpretation of how Soviet navigation satellites were first used when one notes the Russian Yankee class nuclear-powered submarines carry sixteen launch tubes so closely aping the American Polaris and Poseidon classes.

Many proposed civil navigation systems discussed in the open literature involve an interaction two ways between the ships and aircraft being navigated and the satellites in space. Typically, the mobile ship or aircraft sends a signal which is received by several satellites, and they relay the signal to a ground computer which compares signal differences, computes a position for the mobile ship or aircraft, and this position information is relayed back via a satellite to the mobile ship or plane. Such navigation systems not only have moderate costs for the mobile unit but also can serve to support traffic control purposes as well.

The early military navigation systems are different in concept from the system just described. In general it is better for the mobile ship to remain radio silent, not to disclose its position. Submarines in particular rely upon concealment, and at worst want to do no more than stick out of the water an unobtrusive receiving antenna to pick up satellite signals. The Transit system has been described as consisting of satellites in polar orbit which broadcast on 150 MHz and 400 MHz holding to these frequencies with great precision. The listening submarine or ship measures the Doppler shift of signals to determine the relative positions of listener and satellite. The satellite periodically gives an accurate and updated set of emphemerides for its own position. Then a computer on the listening vessel combines the Doppler shifts in the harmonic signals and the position information on the satellite (fed in by satellite ground tracking stations) to calculate the position of the listener. This permits accurate locations to within a very few meters. Such a system with its accuracy helps the submarine or other ship to navigate, and to keep an update on missile target locations. The trade press has reported that the same system can be used for tactical fire controllers in ground warfare as well. By using satellite navigation data and the same grids, a fire controller out of view of a gun battery can still give directions permitting the very accurate placement of artillery rounds on selected targets.

Although the Russians have not described their system, the same compelling circumstances have applied, and it is likely they have gone about the same technical route as the Americans. The U.S. system now has been declassified and made available to civilian users.



26. Aviation Week and Space Technology, No. 26, June 25, 1979, p. 21.

27. Sheldon, C. S. The Soviet Space Program: A Growing Enterprise, TRW Space Log, vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 2-23, Winter 1968-69.

28. Sheldon, C. S., private communication to G. E. Perry, Jan. 12, 1979.


* The late Dr. Sheldon,( 1917-1981) was Chief, Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.

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