[ index | 1970 ]


CORONA (launched 1960) -- first photo reconnaissance satellite
SAMOS (launched 1961) -- second generation photo satellite
CANYON (launched 1968) -- first US Comint satellite
RHYOLITE (launched 1972) -- SIGINT (geosynchronous)
(launched 1976) -- low-flying satellite

The ability of the United States to gather overhead imagery of targets in foreign nations has evolved dramatically over the last sixty years. Modified bombers and fighters used in World War II and the early years of the Cold War gave way to specialized reconnaissance aircraft, such as the U-2 and SR-71, and to a variety of satellite systems. The capabilities of satellite systems have also evolved dramatically over the last four decades - from satellites that returned film days or weeks after the images were obtained to satellites that return their imagery virtually instantaneously. In addition, the details that could be extracted from those images has also risen sharply over the years, as the resolution of the imagery produced by the satellites has improved dramatically.

Today the United States maintains a variety of aerial and space systems that yield imagery of foreign territory. Aerial systems included manned aircraft such as the U-2 as well as the as the Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Space systems include the advanced KH-11 electro-optical satellites, the ONYX radar imagery satellite, and, possibly, one or more MISTY stealth satellites.

At one time, the very "fact of" satellite reconnaissance was classified. Despite the acknowledgment of a satellite reconnaissance effort in 1978 and the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office in 1992, it was not until 1995 that the U.S. first released imagery obtained by the CORONA satellites that operated during the 1960-1972 period as well as images obtained by the ARGON and LANYARD systems that operated in the early 1960s.

The Clinton administration, on occasion, released imagery obtained by advanced KH-11 satellites, although in degraded form - so as not to reveal the full capabilities of the satellites, particularly their resolution. The selective releases were associated with U.S. military operations - including strikes against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan (in response to the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania), strikes against Yugoslavian targets in support of U.S. operations in the Balkans, and the air strikes against Iraqi targets that constituted Operation Desert Fox.

-- National Security Archive: Electronic Briefing Book No. 88, April 30, 2003.
src: http://www.hfni.gsehd.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB88/

44. No other nation (including the former Soviet Union) has deployed satellites comparable to CANYON, RHYOLITE, or their successors. Both Britain (project ZIRCON) and France (project ZENON) have attempted to do so, but neither persevered. After 1988 the British government purchased capacity on the US VORTEX (now MERCURY) constellation to use for unilateral national purposes.(24) A senior UK Liaison Officer and staff from GCHQ work at Menwith Hill NSA station and assist in tasking and operating the satellites.

24."UK Eyes Alpha", Mark Urban, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, pps 56-65.


[ index | 1969 ]