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Military Intelligence Satellites

Looking down and out (as from a mountain) to survey the battlefield for information useful to military leaders goes back to ancient times. In Napoleonic times, the French used observation balloons to scan their foes before and during battles. This technique was often a factor in the U.S. Civil War. By the First World War, airplanes and dirigibles were employed over enemy lines and their staging areas and cities as platforms from which aerial photography provided reconnaissance and intelligence pertinent to the content of battle. This approach was much expanded during the Second World War, as for example the follow-ups to a bombing raid to assess damage to the target.

With the advent of rockets and then satellites, observations of both military and political activities on the ground became possible, ushering in the so-called Age of Spy Satellites. Since the beginning of entry into space, hundreds of these satellites have been launched, first by the U.S. and the Soviet Union and then other nations. Besides surveillance of a wide variety of targets of interest to military intelligence units (in the United States, these include the Department of Defense, the CIA, the National Security Agency, and Homeland Defense), satellites can now assist in areas other than simply observing features on the ground - this includes communications, meteorology, oceanography, location (Global Position Systems [GPS]), and Early Warning Systems (none of these latter applications will be discussed on this page). In addition to satellites, manned aircraft continue to be platforms and in recent years UAV's (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) such as drones have assumed some of the intelligence-gathering tasks.

As one would suspect, there is extensive coverage of "spy satellites" on the Internet, although much information remains classified and thus not released to the public. On this page, only the broadest outline of the history of military intelligence operations from the air and space in the last 50 years will be treated, along with some representative image examples that are now declassified into the public domain. The reader is offered these five Internet sites as among the best found by the writer. Two top the list: 1) An overview (click on that link) prepared by Federation of American Scientists, with an offshoot or link from the same organization that shows specific imagery; and 2) this site, with an information history supported by good imagery, produced by a group at George Washington University. Also worth a visit: SpySat. It's your choice, either visit these first or read further on this page (most images come from these Web pages just cited) and then check out the above sites.

Before moving through this page, which will only synopsize part of the story, we suggest going to one more Web site that specifically includes the effects of spatial resolution in military satellite surveillance. This is again two of the links on the FAS Imint site (1)and (2). The single idea to draw from these illustrations is that military observations work best and reveal the desired intelligence when resolution is a few meters or better. Note what can be found and, more importantly, identified at each resolution level.

As you should expect, the military reconnaissance satellites are usually very sophisticated - advanced platform and advanced sensors. There aren't many pictures or sketches of spy satellites on the Internet. Here's one - as you might predict, it is not named; the black surroundings suggest it was actually photographed while in space (during a servicing mission from the Shuttle - yes, the Pentagon has allowed military activities on this so-called civilian system):

An American spy satellite (in space?).

For nearly four decades the military had high resolution systems - this was their most salient advantage - that could not be matched by non-military earth observation systems (i.e., there were imposed limits of resolution below which (namely, towards greater/better resolution [picking out smaller objects]) no civilian space agency or private group were permitted to design into the sensors on the satellites they operated). All this changed in the 1990s when the Russians began to sell high resolution (~2 meters) imagery from their SPIN-2 on the open world market. After that the U.S. placed more than 800,000 of its earlier military space photos into the public domain.

Now to some specifics: When one thinks of any postwar spy from the sky incidents, the first and most famous case that many recall was the U-2 high altitude airplane that was shot down over the Soviet Union during President Eisenhower's second term in which the pilot, Gary Powers, was captured and held for many months.

Here is an example of a spy reconnaissance U-2 photo (from another mission) over a military air base.

U-2 photograph of an unidentified military air base; note the aircraft line up.

The U-2 achieved even more fame during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Pres. John F. Kennedy went to the brink with Soviet Chairman Nikita Krushchev over the installation of Medium and Long Range nuclear rockets in parts of Cuba. The next two U-2 images show the facilities that were in place before the Soviet/Cuban block agreed to remove these weapons (probably avoiding World War III or at least partial annihilation):

The San Cristobal, Cuba missile site on October 14, 1962; U-2 photo.
Another San Cristobal site on October 27, 1962, as the facilities were being dismantled; U-2 photo.

The U-2 is talked about again in Section 10 in connection with a mission flown for the writer (NMS) in Wyoming as part of a Landsat geology study. The plane used is one of the two that are flying over San Francisco in this photo:

Two U-2s in flight.

Added to this fleet of spy planes was the SR-71, known as the Blackbird. Here it is in flight; beneath is a photo shows a military storage base in Nicauragua (in 1987) :

SR-71.
SR-71 image of a military storage complex in Nicauragua.

The first military satellites carried photographic cameras that had high resolution optics. This required well-constructed automatic photo systems with a reliable film advance. Here is a cutaway of the Corona nosecone showing the photographic setup:

Photographic camera setup in a Corona satellite,

The problem, of course, was that of retrieving the film (no outer space drugstores). It could have been developed onboard like was done with the Lunar Orbiter pictures. Instead, the operators of this type of satellite chose to eject the (undeveloped) film towards Earth, with its container deploying on a parachute when the object entered the upper atmosphere. The film package was then "snatched" in mid-by an airplane sent to its expected point of entry. This seemingly difficult feat was remarkably successful, accomplished most of the time. This diagram shows the sequence:

Diagram showing sequence of stages in parachute drops from a satellite.

And here is a C-119 aircraft just after it snagged the film dropped on a parachute:

C-119 after catching a parachute to which a film canister was attached.

The primary group of U.S. military satellites used in reconnaissance and surveillance is known as the KeyHole series. The first four of these were given the code name CORONA. The first of these was placed in orbit in 1960 and used the parachute retrieval system until 1972. Each numbered KeyHole mission series consisted of multiple satellites. Different identifiers denoted specific satellite types that varied in launch vehicle, orbital characteristics and satellite instrumentation. For example, the KH-1 through KH-4 series also included the appellation Corona, KH-5 is called the Argon series, and KH-6 the Lanyard. Each involved various numbers of satellites. There were 105 successful Corona missions, which were operated by the U.S. Air Force, with CIA involvement. Spatial resolution, initially about 2 meters with the first KH-1 launch in 1960 to work properly, steadily improved with the higher KH numbers. Here is a diagram showing the main components of the entire Corona spacecraft:

The Corona spacecraft.

To illustrate the types of images obtained (as photos) from the Cornonas (that constitute the now declassified images released during the Clinton Administration), first examine this view of Moscow made by a KH-4 pass:

KH-4 Corona Photo of central Moscow in the Soviet Union, with inset showing an enlargement of Red Square.

Next, examine this KH image (specific group unspecified) of a Soviet Airfield.

Early KH photo of a Soviet airfield.

The U.S. has released a KH photo of the very center of its military complex - the Pentagon:

The Pentagon.

All of the KH satellites, of which more than 150 have been launched, consist of film cameras or electro-optical cameras that view the ground through telescopes. KH-7 and KH-9, the Gambit series, had resolutions of about 7 and 2.5 centimeters respectively. The KH-9 Hexagon satellites had 5 to 10 meter resolutions. It is not clear from any of the Internet sources consulted when 1) parachute drops ceased and 2) when electro-optical scanners replaced film. But, KH-11 is designated as an ELINT type (Electronic Intelligence) and did relay its imagery to receiving stations. The KH-11 Crystal satellites produce both SWIR and Thermal Infrared imagery, suggesting a non-photographic component. The KH-12 series, the last for which some specifications can be found, is reputed to achieve a resolution of 2+ cm, although images of this sharpness haven't been released. Below are several illustrations of declassified (but less than optimum resolution) KH-11 and KH-12 images:

One of the first KH-11 Crystal images, showing facilities at a Soviet harbor; the streaks to the right suggest scan lines, implying that an electro-optical scanner made this image.

Here is one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, a potential target in any renewed Iraqi conflict.

One of several palaces near Baghdad used by Saddam Hussein.

The next pair shows a military barracks in Serbia before and after an airstrike during the Bosnian conflict.

Belgrade barracks before an air raid.
The same barracks after the raid, showing damage inflicted.

This next image was made by a KH-12 satellite using an improved Crystal sensor to image the Zawahr Kili Al-Bahr terrorist camp in western Afghanistan in 1998

KH-12 image of Afghan terrorist camp.

Examples of thermal infrared aerial and satellite imagery with specific military applications are scarce on the Internet. But here is one which appears to be a thermal IR image. It was taken during the Contra conflict in Nicauragua.

Tanks and armored vehicles in this image (possibly thermal IR) of a facility in Nicauragua.

Thermal cameras used on the ground have numerous uses by the military. Look at these two thermal IR images, one of a tank, the other of a Hummer vehicle:

TIR image of a tank.
Soldiers and a Hummer vehicle.

Radar has special military value because, using the right wavelengths, this active system can "see through" clouds and can operate at night. The U.S's Lacrosse series consists of a SAR sensor mounted on a very large (reputed to be schoolbus sized) platform that ties to extended solar arrays. No Lacross/Vega images were found from an Internet Search through more than 200 sites - this confirms the highly secretive and classified nature of this system. The first Lacrosse was orbited in 1988; Lacrosse-4 launched in 2000. The speculation is that this radar can achieve 1 meter or better resolution. The next image was made by an airborne SAR (TIER program) which simulates the Lacrosse products:

TIER SAR imagery of Army barracks.

The TESAR (Tactical Enhanced SAR) program has produced these high resolution images: first of shipping crates in a military depot at a Baltimore, MD harbor; second, the most famed military building in the world - the Pentagon outside Washington. D.C.

TESAR image of Baltimore Harbor dock and adjacent ship
TESAR image of the Pentagon.

Well before the civilian Quickbird and IKONOS satellites were made operational with high resolution sensors, military satellites had reached that stage and better. Claims are made of the ability to see people, read license plates, and even spot golf balls but no released images are that good (so the claims are speculative). But Hollywood has adopted this optimistic belief, with shows often pinpointing individuals in motion Example: The Fox network hit "24"; the Counterterrorism Unit seems able to call in a space sensor to dwell on buildings and cars and people in motion; maybe so, but since most satellites orbit at low altitudes and hence pass over a scene for only a few minute in about 120 minutes, this would suggest that the satellites are geostationary ones which, being far out, would have to have incredible optics to monitor the action. What is probably actually involved are unmanned drones, treated next.

Over these past 45 years, and well before, aerial reconnaissance and intelligence surveillance has relied heavily on aircraft (ranging from low flying slow single engine propeller planes to high flying fast jets). A U-2 and an SR-71 example were shown above. In recent years, the military has turned to another aerial method - the use of UAVs - Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - to conduct pre-programmed surveys of targets and personnel. Some vehicles are called "drones". One class of UAVs is the Predator series. Below are a photo of this large vehicle and then two examples of images obtained from so-called gun-mounts, where the camera or electronic sensor is placed at or near the front of the vehicle.

An unmanned Predator drone; two versions exist, one with its two tail aelerons down, the other up.
UAV-acquired image of a bridge being destroyed in Kosovo.
Serbian fighters surrendering in Bosnia; UAV image.

UAVs have become the workhorse for military reconnaissance. As such, they perform classic remote sensing functions. Their cameras operate in the visible and infrared (including thermal imaging). It is predicted that as of 2010 more UAVs will be purchased by the U.S. Defense Department than traditional aircraft. But the need for trained pilots will remain since these are usually the ones to operate the controls of the UAV during a mission.

UAVs are useful in non-military uses as well. Search and rescue comes to mind. A good summary of UAVs is offered at this Wikipedia web site.

The Soviet Union, as stated above, has operated its own network of spy satellites. Most of the images obtained have been declassified for sale on the open market. It has flown several different series, of which Kosmos (the USSR code name was Zenot) is the best known. Here is an example of once military-now civilian Soviet satellite photos/images showing the City Hall of New York:

A recent Russian Kosmos image of City Hall in New York City.

The Soviet, and later Russian, spy satellites are, like the American one, quite advanced and loaded with powerful sensors. Here is a photo of the Kosmos 994 spacecraft, which obtains its internal electricity from a small nuclear power source:

Kosmos 994.

Aside from the now declassified imagery discussed on page I-23 and elsewhere, much of the older photographs and scanner imagery obtained by the USSR/Russian reconnaissance satellite remains unavailable. Here is an exception: Part of the supersecret Area 51 outside of the Nevada Test Site (see page 6-8):

Groom Lake and facilities at Area 51.

Other nations have followed the Superpowers to run their own surveillance programs. The Israelis are using their EROS 1 and 2 satellites parttime in military reconnaissance. Here is their image of Kandahar in Afghanistan:

The old central city (walled) in Kandahar.

Now, intelligence imagery has come full circle. Among the first satellites launched were those used for military purposes. The experience with this technology was invaluable to NASA and other space agencies in developing their (until recently, lower resolution) earth-observers. But, with the Russian declassification followed by orbiting of civilian commercial satellites, e.g., IKONOS and Quickbird, high resolution imagery (1 to 4 meter range) has proved to have its military applications and is being purchased by many nations. The U.S. military and the CIA/NSA complex have contracted with these companies to obtain imagery, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We illustrate with this one example of an Afghanistan Taliban Air Force base at Baghram, north of Kabul. This is an IKONOS product:

IKONOS image of the airfield at Baghram, Afghanistan, showing deployment of MIG fighters.

This availability of high resolution satellite images from unrestricted civilian sources has another important ramification: Images of possible military value can now be purchased by any country. Most nations cannot afford their own spy satellite programs but IKONOS, Quickbird and other private company products are affordable.

We turn next to a set of two examples of such imagery that have been gathered by Quickbird 2 (DigitalGlobe) in its now routine coverage of Baghdad, Iraq during 2002 and 2003 in anticipation of a possible invasion of that country by the U.S. military (and, probably other cooperating nations) as an initiative to topple the government of Saddam Hussein. Read the captions of each image for details.

An enlargement of Quickbird imagery (4 meter resolution) show palaces and other buildings along or near the Tigris River.
The Al-Sijood Palace, one of the principal residences of Saddam Hussein, along the Tigris River (see its location in the image above).

Great concern for a while in June of 2006 was voiced by the U.S. and other major powers about a long-range (5000 km; 3000 miles) rocket on the launch pad of the Taepo-Dong facility in North Korea. Although a highly unlikely scenario, the launch could threaten U.S. territory, and the American military was alerted to be ready to intercept and destroy the missile if it seemed headed for a target deemed dangerous to U.S. interests. IKONOS obtained images of the launch facility:

IKONOS image of the N. Korean rocket facility.
Enlargment of IKONOS image showing the possible rocket in place, but not revealing enough details to indicate the presumed launch plans.

So, the Question of the Day: Can anything on Earth really be private anymore?

Source: http://rst.gsfc.nasa.gov

Finally, for still more information on security-based surveillance from space, we suggest you check out the Global Security Organization web site.