Space Reconnaissance Vulnerability

Allen Thomson

Space News, October 10-16 1994

Allen Thomson is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.

The time has come for the United States to perform a fundamental reassessment of its needs for reconnaissance satellites. Not only must we come to terms with a radically different and rather ill-defined security environment, we must also acknowledge possible threats to our satellite systems from a variety of sources which have not been factored into our thinking.

However, current institutions are not well suited for such reassessment. In fact, U.S. government officials are indicating that current plans call for fewer satellites -- the wrong course to take if individual satellites come under increasing threats.

Publicity given the tactical use of satellite reconnaissance during the Persian Gulf war marks a fundamental break in the world's perception of space-based intelligence use. Lessons learned from the Gulf war by the world's military commands must include assessments of the United States' wartime use of space and possible countermeasures that might be taken by future adversaries.

Countries hoping to develop countermeasures to space reconnaissance must identify the satellites involved and be able to track their positions in space -- a task that is easier than is commonly believed. As it turns out, there are many relatively inexpensive technologies which can be used to detect and track satellites in low earth orbit (LEO). The worldwide network of amateur satellite observers illustrates how space surveillance capabilities can be acquired with minimal technology. Using stop watches, personal computers and sometimes binoculars, amateurs can note satellite positions and then determine the orbits of those satellites by employing methods developed by 19th century astronomers. Because the United States does not release data about the orbits of its classified spacecraft, amateurs relish the special challenge of tracking American spy satellites, and they are usually successful.

As a result, the amateur community maintains orbital elements for most classified U.S. vehicles in low Earth orbit. Not only are amateurs able to track the satellites they call KH-11, Lacrosse, and Naval Ocean

Surveillance System (satellites), they frequently are able to re-establish the satellite's track after prolonged periods of poor observing conditions, or after major maneuvers.

If a country wished to acquire a better LEO surveillance capability than amateurs possess, several possibilities are available. One example is the charged-coupled device, an electronic sensor used instead of film in the backs of cameras like the ones now used for orbital debris surveys. A variant of these cameras, which uses sensitive infrared detectors, is now commercially available. In addition, relatively simple radars like the one used by the U.S. Navy's Naval Space Surveillance system are straightforward to build.

If future adversaries are able to find and track American intelligence satellites, it is important to understand what they will be able to do with that knowledge.

Orbital predictions are accurate enough that a country or other entity wishing to organize a concealment and deception effort against satellite reconnaissance could do so. A major part of the effort would be

training personnel operating weapons such as Iraqi Scud missiles to quickly and effectively conceal their activities when warned of an impending overflight by an American spy satellite.

Although the United States has tended to think of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile threats in terms of the former Soviet Union's orbiting weapons concept, Third World ASATs are much more likely to use simple, lower cost, Earth-based rockets. Rockets can be fired from mobile launchers, making them at least as survivable as Scuds.

When attacking very valuable satellites with inexpensive ASATs, multiple launches against the same target are reasonable. Guidance, the most difficult part of an anti-satellite engagement, is primarily dependent on sensors and computation -- technologies which continue to evolve rapidly.

Many papers have been written on the topic of satellite vulnerability, and there is a fairly standard menu of techniques to enhance satellite survivability: autonomy, deception, deterrence, hardening and maneuver are all candidates. Each of these has some promise for limited applications, but none is likely to guarantee the survival of any particular satellite.

The function of the overall reconnaissance system should be the focus of concern, rather than preservation of individual satellites. When individual components are vulnerable, the central theme for system survivability is redundancy and replacement. If many redundant satellites have to be acquired, their individual cost must be reduced through the use of smaller vehicles and more efficient procurement procedures.

Replacement of lost satellites implies a secure, quick-response launch capability, which also points in the direction of smaller satellites and small launch vehicles. Small, portable launchers also alleviate the problems inherent in dependence on a few well known launch pads, especially as cheap, precision-guided, long-range cruise missiles become generally available.

The problems associated with the developing vulnerability of American space-based security assets is complex. Careful, unbiased assessments of emerging space surveillance, anti-satellite technologies and available responses are needed. These assessments must be re-examined frequently to keep pace with rapid changes in technology and world politics.

The organizations and practices which grew up around reconnaissance satellites during the Cold War are now a serious impediment to meeting the challenges facing Americans in the coming years and decades.

Among the worst of the institutional problems is the system of secrecy associated with reconnaissance satellites, which hinders objective analysis at the expense of national security.