The most sophisticated and most crucial application of U.S. optical and imaging technology have long been barred from being freely discussed: spy satellites and cell phone spying software. But, while still heavily cloaked in a veil of secrecy, more and more of the revealing imagery gathered by U.S. reconnaissance spacecraft is finding its way not only directly to military commanders in the field, but also to other nondefense agencies waging wars against illegal drugs and the degradation of the environment.
Because of the secrecy surrounding spy satellites, it is tough to say exactly how much this country spends every year on them. It is generally known that the development, deployment and operation of these machines is managed by the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an agency so covert that, famously, even its letterhead is classified top-secret. It is always headed by a senior Air Force official, and the current NRO chief is believed to be Assistant Air Force Secretary for Space Martin C. Faga.
Like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community’s roughly $30-billion annual budget – about one tenth of total defense spending – the NRO’s spending is tucked away in odd comers of the Pentagon’s spying budget. The $2.5 billion that the Air Force got this year for a line-item with the unrevealing title “Special Projects,” for example, is believed to be for NRO satellites. That’s not the whole picture, however. The New York Times recently pegged the NRO’s overall budget at about $6 billion, or roughly a fifth of total intelligence spending.
Cell Phone Spying via Satellite
Among the U.S. spy birds that passed over the Persian Gulf region every couple of hours were three KH-11 Kennan spacecraft lobbed into elliptical polar orbits in November and December 1984 and October 1987. The prime contractor for the KH-11 and its successors is said to be Lockheed Corp., assisted by the subcontractors Perkin Elmer Corp. and TRW Inc.
The best way to conceptualize the Kennan, Federation of American Scientists space expert John E. Pike says, is to image “a Hubble Space Telescope with a large rocket engine attached to provide manoeuvrability.” Instead of being pointed out at the cosmos, of course, KH-11s and their finely polished mirrors and lenses are directed at targets on the Earth. Besides visible wave-length imagery with a resolution of about 6 inches, the KH-11s also provide high-resolution IR images.
Unlike its predecessors – the KH-4 Corona, the KH-7/8 Gambit and the KH-9 Hexagon – which ejected retrievable film capsules, the KH-11 electronically transmits its imagery directly to Earth. This is made possible by CCDs, similar to the devices used in the home video camcorders, arranged by the hundreds into sophisticated arrays.
As many as three Advanced Kennan, or Crystal, satellites were also active during the Gulf war. Whereas the KH-11s run roughly 25,000-28,000 pounds and about 10 feet in diameter, these successors weigh as much as 40,000 pounds and have a diameter as great as 15 feet. This extra heft allows the sophisticated spy birds to carry more hydrazine rocket fuel for greater longevity and manoeuvrability, as well as more sensors with even greater visual acuity. Advanced Kennans were launched in August 1989 and in March 1990, and a third may have been put up last June.
In December 1988, the first Lacrosse synthetic-aperture radar imaging satellite was launched. This Martin Marietta Corp. unit gives the U.S. military an unparalleled ability to generate images through cloud cover – but at a cost. Whereas the resolution of the KH-11 and its successor are measured in inches, Lacrosse’s resolution is measured in feet. On the other hand, its radars potentially can -see” 15 feet or so below the Earth’s surface, which reportedly may have proved useful in locating Iraqi command posts buried under the Kuwaiti desert. A second Lacrosse was orbited on March 8, about a week after the war with Iraq ended.
Developed under a separate Air Force program and built by TRW, three active Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit some 92,000 miles above the equator also provide early-warning data of missile launches, such as the Scud ballistic missiles fired by Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. Thanks to the 6,000 infrared detectors in their 12-foot telescopes – manufactured by Aerojet General Corp. – the latest DSP satellites can image not only rocket plumes but also the afterburners of jet fighters.
Plugged Directly In
Several new applications for overhead reconnaissance are now moving rapidly up the policy agenda – though the Pentagon remains jittery about discussing them in detail. A case in point: In February and April 1989, a senior Army officer testified – in open session – before a House subcommittee on the use of satellites in the “war on drugs.’ When the transcripts of those hearings were published in that fall, however, many of the general’s remarks and even those of committee members had been deleted from the official record.
The rationale for such extreme discretion became clearer, perhaps, the following March, when Mexico lodged a formal protest about U.S. use of spy satellites to chart illegal drug cultivation south of the border. Mexico had tumbled to this fact in mid-February 1990, only a few weeks before the State Department issued its annual report on foreign narcotics production, which estimated – with a precision that surely struck the Mexicans as eerie – that 143,133 acres in Mexico were being cultivated for marijuana, a six-fold increase over the 1988 estimate.
Overhead intelligence assets will also be devoted to the Pentagon’s new environmental research effort. Congress last year set aside $150 million in fiscal 1991 for a Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). The Pentagon’s executive director for the SERDP, Joseph V. Osterman, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 14 that he had already consulted with “the intelligence community, particularly that part which is dedicated to overhead surveillance. These folks are willing to cautiously come to the table, with security measures foremost in their minds, of course,” Osterman added. “But I’ve been impressed by their willingness to contribute to SERDP.”
This proliferation of users is slated to be matched by a growing number of overhead surveillance systems. In 1988 and 1989, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chairman David L. Boren, D-Okla., battled with the Reagan and then the Bush Administrations for a program to deploy as many as a half dozen Lacrosse satellites – at a rate of one a year – as well, reportedly, as a new satellite designed to monitor Soviet laser programs.
“We wanted to support [Boren's plan] but not at the expense of our base programs,” outgoing CIA director William H. Webster commented in a late-1989 interview with this reporter. “But now we’re coming to another period where [the Pentagon] is facing anticipated cuts,” he said. “Our role is to determine where the major cuts or reductions will have to be. And Congress, of course, is supportive of a number of programs, but told us to find the money inside our own budget.”
With the Pentagon budget, which conceals an increasingly pressured intelligence budget, slated to lose 10% of its spending value by mid-decade, it is unclear whether the Boren program will be fully pursued.
In every arena, however, you can have too much of a good thing. As do other intelligence experts, Jeffrey T. Richelson, the author of America’s Secret Eyes in Space: The U.S. Keyhole Spy Satellite Program, worries that official Washington is in danger of choking on all of the space imagery it has on order. “One has to ask,- he said, “whether we risk putting too much up and not having a capability to absorb that data.