Date: Sun, 1 Feb 98 13:44:09 CST
From: Tom Burghardt <>
Subject: (en) Smaller Spy Satellites May Give U.S. Stealth Capability
Article: 26836


Smaller spy satellites may give U.S. stealth capability over trouble spots

By Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, Sunday 1 February 1998; page A09

A new generation of small intelligence satellites, planned to be launched beginning in 2003, is expected to give U.S. analysts almost constant overhead images of specific trouble spots anywhere in the world, according to administration and congressional sources.

Some of the new vehicles may be equipped with stealth technology so they cannot be tracked by radar, several sources said. But other sources doubt a way has been found to prevent detection of the satellites, a feat the CIA and Pentagon have been trying to accomplish since the 1960s.

The new satellites could have a major effect on intelligence gathering like that currently occurring in Iraq.

Today, the Iraqi government can determine through tracking systems when U.S. non-stealth satellites and U-2 aircraft fly over the country and take measures to cover up suspected weapons sites, sources said. More satellites and stealth capability would complicate if not prevent Iraq or any other country from knowing when to hide potential targets, sources added.

Keith Hall, director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) which buys and flies the satellites, would not discuss stealth capability in satellites.

Other sources on Capitol Hill and within the intelligence community said the existence of the technology in satellites is one of the closest-held secrets in government.

The CIA maintained a covert satellite program in the 1960s that included plans to use decoys on Corona photo satellites to reduce their vulnerability to anti-satellite missiles and black paint to absorb radar beams and reduce chances of detection. There is no indication in released NRO documents that these plans were ever implemented but similar systems have since been used on nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Other sources, however, said that a spy satellite launched in February 1990 in orbit over the Soviet Union that was later reported to have exploded and broken into four pieces was in fact a stealth satellite shedding its outer decoy shell.

The Pentagon in 1990 acknowledged that the space shuttle Atlantis had achieved its goal associated with a classified program and that hardware elements associated with the mission are expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere without causing damage.

The satellite did not disappear, according to John Pike, a specialist with the Federation of American Scientists. Instead it moved into a different orbit and remained in there until October 1990, when it disappeared from view.

My conclusion, Pike said, is that it moved into higher orbit and deployed stealth features. It vanished at about the same time President Bush beefed up U.S. forces for Desert Storm. The reported explosion and disintegration of the satellite, he said, was apparently testing decoy apparatus.

Pike said he believes that a new communications satellite launched by NRO last Thursday is to be used to communicate with stealth imagery satellites through laser transmissions. The NRO declines to discuss any issue involving stealth satellites.

Hall said during a recent interview that if enough of the new, small satellites were purchased and launched, their overhead coverage of a target could come as often as every 15 minutes.

An aide, however, said Hall was using 15 minutes as a goal, but that future coverage depended ultimately on how many small satellites are put in orbit.

Meeting the goal would require dozens of imagery satellites, other sources said, depending on the type used and the clarity of images desired.

Production of the first of the new small satellites is scheduled to begin this year with initial launches five years from now, Hall said. The final number that will be in orbit at one time has not been decided, but the United States will have anywhere from twice to four times as many as there have been in the past, Hall said.

The intelligence satellites now in space, both imagery and signal collectors, total around 12, although the exact number is classified. They were designed in the early 1980s and cost an average of $1 billion apiece, since each virtually was handmade, Hall said. Because some are these are the size of a city bus, they needed to be put into orbit by giant Titan IV rockets. That requirement added tens of millions more to the cost.

In addition, the infrequency of major rocket launches carrying large cargoes such as the current satellites has meant that only two of these satellites at most have been deployed in any year. If a launch or placement into orbit failed, it could take a year or more to send up a replacement satellite.

Today's orbiting imagery satellites, such as the Keyhole, can be seen from the ground, according to Pike, because their size makes them almost visible to the naked eye and easily trackable by radar.

The new, small satellites, which will be about the size of a small van, present a vastly different situation.

They cost from $250 to $500 million apiece and will take just five years to design and build.

In addition, since more of them are going to be built, Hall said NRO may develop an assembly-line technique and drive the cost of each down. Studies also are underway to see if the missiles that launch them can be built the same way, avoiding the cost of the giant Titan IVs.

Unlike the older satellites, the smaller ones will be built to be launched on 30-day notice if needed, Hall said, giving new flexibility to the force.

One problem with the prospect of increased imagery in the next century is that the military services in the past been have slow to acquire new analytic and display equipment to handle the increased data, according to Pentagon sources.

The Pentagon-based National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) has begun a major overhaul and a coordinated effort to standardize transmission and display equipment within the intelligence community.

Its goal is to have the new system in place by 2003 when data flow expands significantly.