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Ocean Surveillance - The View from the West - 1975

There are some frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum which will penetrate cloud cover. In the Earth resources area, passive micro-wave affords one such opportunity. It is not clear whether resolutions are such as to give data beyond the level of climate and soil conditions to anything of military usefulness like order of battle.

One of the interesting exercises in which long range aircraft of the Soviet Union have engaged is that of locating U.S. carrier task forces at sea. The press long carried pictures of Bear turboprops with eight contrarotating propellers flying in mid-Atlantic or mid-Pacific, often with an escort of U.S. carrier aircraft or Royal Air Force planes flying alongside taking pictures in turn. In general, one assumes, the Soviet task of locating U.S. ships which may carry a strike capability with nuclear weapons is easier if the weather is good and if the U.S. ships are revealing their presence by carrying on regular radio communications, permitting radio direction finding. Acoustic signals of propeller sounds in the water are used also for ship locating even over great distances, and are especially important in monitoring submarine activities since the latter if nuclear powered may not surface for long periods and may practice tight radio security.

We must assume the Russians would have a strong motive to develop a technology to locate U.S. naval vessels at sea even when they maneuver to stay under cloud cover and when they keep their radio transmitters and radar sets turned off. An obvious approach would be to put into space radar equipment capable of making rapid wide area searches in any weather. However, providing a sufficient power supply and providing a system which will both do wide area searches and also detail what has been found with a signature which can be interpreted is no small challenge. Some technicians would say that such a capability is not within the state of the art.

However, there is now testimony before Congress on the public record which says the Soviet Union does have a radar system in satellites for ocean surveillance purposes, and from the few facts which have been given, it will be possible in the analysis to follow to identify those Soviet flights which fall into this category of activity.


The newest of the Soviet space launch vehicles to come into use has been that derived from the SS-9 Scarp very large ICBM. In at least one of its versions, it may be carrying an upper stage which was paraded in Moscow as the final stage of the SS-10 Scrag which itself never entered the operational missile inventory. But the SS-10 appellation as "global" used in parade descriptions ultimately was transferred to the SS-9 and this may have been brought about by salvaging for further use this final stage. The F series of launch vehicles is unique in that not one has been applied to any civilian program. There have not even been accounts of supplemental scientific payloads. Further, this larger vehicle, capable of carrying up to 4,500 kilograms of payload, and unlike the awkwardly shaped A class vehicles with their cryogenics, uses storable propellants, and can be placed in a silo launch facility.

With its size and general flexibility, the vehicle has been used for several quite different kinds of missions, indicated by the marked differences in flight mode among each of the groups and even with these groups. Also, with inertial guidance almost certainly a feature, these vehicles have shown some versatility in being launched at a greater variety of azimuths from a given launch facility. All the space launches with the F vehicles have come from Tyuratam.

Table 6-5 which follows summarizes all the F class flights.

Military Ocean Surveillance Using Radar

Back in 1967, shortly after Kosmos 185 introduced use of the F-l-m launch vehicle, the same launch vehicle was used to begin a different series from those intended as targets or interceptors. What was unique and special about this different series is that every flight started out in an orbit around 270 kilometers circular, and then later produced several objects, one of which climbed to about 950 kilometers circular, while the other two main objects shortly decayed from their unchanged low orbit. Table 6-8 summarizing these flights.

The first of these flights was Kosmos 198, which moved to higher orbit, a part of its original single assemblage without separated carrier rocket, after two days. Kosmos 209 the following year made its similar split and partial move after six days. In 1970, Kosmos 367 moved so promptly to its higher orbit, leaving behind the other pieces in the low orbit that the Russians announced only the final, higher orbit. Two such flights came in 1971, moving up part of the payload after 8 and 10 days respectively. The 1972 test made its move after 31 days. The 1973 test moved up after 44 days, while the 1974 tests moved up after 71 and 74 days respectively, and the first 1975 tests moved up after 43 and 65 days respectively.

Such anomalous behavior raised considerable comment in the Western trade press, without any good theories being offered for many years. Finally some clues were offered by the TJ.S. Navy which said the Soviet Union had been developing an ocean surveillance system whose flights had begun in the 1960's. (36)

Then things began to fall into place. The same week independently, the American press carried a story, and G. E. Perry of the Kettering Group in the United Kingdom came up with the same interpretations. Their analysis, whether self derived (Perry) and possibly inspired (by DoD sources?), suggested a coherent picture of what was going on.

This was that the Russians were testing a surveillance satellite designed to seek out naval movements at sea anywhere in the world, regardless of weather and regardless of ships maintaining radio silence. To do this, they would presumably correlate any data from general intelligence on ship movements, including direct port observations, comint, and long range sonar with radar data from satellites. In order to get a good enough radar signal, they needed to keep the radar carrying satellite in fairly low orbit, and on successive passes would sweep large areas of ocean with a signal strength great enough to provide some analyzable return signal.

Further, to generate the power levels required, they probably were using a nuclear power source with a fairly short half life for an RTG (radioactive thermal generator), rather than the more modest amounts of power which solar panels would provide. The argument further ran, if a radioactive source with a short half life were used, it might carry risks of atmospheric and surface pollution when the payload decayed soon from low orbit. Hence, the operating mode was to make the radar survey in low orbit, and when it was indicated through telemetry that the sensors and processing equipment was about to fail, explosive bolts were blown to separate the original rocket and as much of the hardware as possible to permit natural decay.

But the dangerous part of the payload with the radio-active RTG equipment was fired by an integral rocket to carry the "payload" to a higher altitude where a typical decay time was 600 years. This would provide such a margin of safety that many half lives later, the ultimate decay of the nuclear material would provide a minimal hazard to the Earth.

If one can accept the British measurements, the complete payload was about 14 meters long, while after the split, about 6 meters moved to the high orbit, and two pieces, 6 meters and 2 meters respectively remained behind. These have been labeled the rocket and the platform by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (REA), which may be correct, or may be an unwarranted identification. C. P. Vick estimates the rocket portion as 8.9 by 8 meters; if he is correct, the other figures probably should be increased also.

The clue to the analysis now carried widely in the press and trade journals is the lengthening time between attainment of initial orbit and the later split and partial elevation. For several years it was assumed that the higher orbit was important to conduct of the mission, and no one could understand why there was the delay in moving up. The tie of need for radar, the use of a nuclear power source, and the final need to dispose of the radioactivity finally made possible the link of the U.S. Navy testimony and reports with this big, previously unexplained series of Soviet flights.

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Page last modified: 24-08-2017 19:24:10 ZULU