A “Rifle” in Space

June 1, 2003

On July 12, 1963, the New York Times reported that a “top Soviet spy” had defected to the West, bringing extremely valuable information with him. He was said to be under heavy guard in Britain. On the next day, the Times provided a name for the defector: Anatoli Dolnystin.

The Times was close. He was Anatoli Golitsyn—or AE/LADLE, in CIA parlance. He provided information that helped uncover four Soviet “moles” in NATO. Unfortunately, however, he also delivered numerous half-baked theories and false claims, the combination of which snarled US and British intelligence for years.

Such was the hazard of “human intelligence.” Yet also on July 12, as Golitsyn was being debriefed, US Air Force personnel at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., embarked on a very different type of intelligence operation. They were preparing to launch into orbit a new type of reconnaissance satellite system.

This intelligence operation, far from producing confusion, a la Golitsyn, provided priceless clarity about vital intelligence subjects—Soviet missile, aircraft, and naval deployments, as well as nuclear testing in the USSR and other nations.

An Atlas/Agena D rocket successfully lifted off from Vandenberg and placed the new spacecraft in orbit, 100 miles above Earth. The satellite, or “orbital control vehicle,” weighed about 4,500 pounds. It comprised a camera system to photograph the wide array of targets that would be passing beneath it, a single recovery vehicle in which the camera’s film would be returned to Earth for analysis, and command and communications equipment.

The mission of the photoreconnaissance satellite was to boost the powers of the CIA and other agencies, including Air Force Systems Command’s Foreign Technology Division, which produced technical intelligence on foreign aerospace systems. They were to receive images of targets around the world, images far sharper than those produced by Corona satellites since 1960.

The capabilities of Corona had evolved and improved over three years. As it went through a series of camera systems—KH-1 through KH-4—its resolution improved from 40 feet to as low as six feet. However, Corona was best suited to what intelligence officials call “broad area search.” That means the system is used to answer the question, “Is there something of interest there?”

In contrast, the camera carried on the new satellite, designated KH-7, would be employed to provide images with much greater clarity, allowing photo interpreters to extract more intelligence than ever before.

Code Name Gambit

The KH-7 had been developed under a highly secret program code-named Gambit, authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the late summer or early fall of 1960 and assigned to the Los Angeles­based Air Force office responsible for development of the Samos reconnaissance satellite.

Following the establishment of the National Reconnaissance Office in September 1961, the project became the responsibility of the NRO’s Air Force component—the Air Force Office of Special Projects, which was the Samos office with a new name.

The precise requirements for the new satellite had been identified by the Satellite Intelligence Requirements Committee, established by Director of Central Intelligence Allen W. Dulles in 1960. The committee specified three major goals for the new satellite. It should permit the United States to:

  • Locate suspected ICBM sites in the Soviet Union.
  • Yield more descriptive information on the Soviet Union’s ICBMs by providing more detailed photographs.
  • Provide resolution such that interpreters could determine the technical characteristics of the highest priority targets.

USAF’s special projects office was responsible for delivering the finished satellite. However, a contractor team was in charge of conducting the actual research, development, and production work.

General Electric, which had developed nosecones allowing missile warheads to pass through the atmosphere without burning up, produced the spacecraft body, while Eastman Kodak was assigned the task of developing the camera system. Lockheed was the integrator, responsible for putting together the whole package.

The camera produced by Eastman Kodak was a “strip camera” capable of photographing areas 14 miles in width and up to 460 miles in length, using nine-inch-wide large format film (which was, with rare exception, black and white). With a strip camera, the film moves past the optic slit at the same rate at which the outside image “moves” in the field of view of the satellite. Thus, the image remains constant.

Narrow Focus

The camera had its limitations. The Corona system had provided images covering a huge terrestrial “footprint.” The KH-7 images, however, were confined to a relatively small area.

The physical flexibility of the camera system was also limited. It could not be easily moved to cover targets located in different positions relative to the spacecraft. Thus, if one target was directly under the satellite, it could be difficult or impossible to move the camera to a target off to the side in the limited time available to get a picture before the spacecraft moved out of range.

As a result, the KH-7 was “access-limited” and satellites usually finished a mission with unused film. The spacecraft moved on a very low Earth orbit, and it often ran out of fuel to keep it there before it ran out of film.

During its four years of operation, the KH-7 returned some 19,000 frames of varying length, which added up to 43,000 feet of film. In contrast, the Corona satellites over their 12 years of operation would return more than 800,000 frames.

When the film supply or fuel had been exhausted, the film was returned to Earth inside the KH-7’s single recovery vehicle, which was virtually identical to the ones used for Corona. As the re-entry vehicle parachuted toward the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, it would be plucked out of the air by a specially equipped C-119 airplane from a Hawaii­based recovery squadron.

The July 12 launch was the first of 38 KH-7 launches. In 34 of these, the satellites returned imagery, though there were four instances in which the imagery was not usable. It was truly a close-look system. The KH-7’s perigee (the point of the orbit on which a spacecraft comes closest to Earth) averaged 92 miles in altitude, although on one mission it came within 75 miles.

A second vital characteristic of the KH-7 was its inclination—usually 90 to 96 degrees. This Sun synchronous orbit ensured that, each time the satellite photographed a target, it was at the same Sun angle, a benefit for those responsible for interpreting the images it produced. The time on orbit was short—on average 5.5 days and never longer than eight days.

As might be expected, the primary targets were the Soviet Union and China. Between the first launch of a KH-7 and its last mission, the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces deployed three new ICBMs—the SS-9/Mod 2, SS-11/Mod 1, and SS-8.

But ICBM fields were only one of many sets of targets. On mission 4027 (the initial KH-7 mission had been designated 4001), its targets on April 20, 1966, included Dolon Airfield in Siberia, the home of intercontinental Bear bombers, as well as the Semipalitinsk Nuclear Weapons Proving Ground, one of two Soviet nuclear test sites.

During an August 1966 mission, a KH-7 photographed the Tyuratam Test Center, from which the Soviet Union launched space missions as well as liquid-fueled ICBMs in their test phase.

On May 22, 1967, another KH-7 was launched into orbit. It stayed up for eight days, coming at one point within 84 miles of Earth. On Day Four, it photographed the Kapustin Yar Missile Test Center, from which were fired missiles used in antiballistic missile tests. Those missiles were headed for the Sary Shagan antisatellite and space tracking facility.

On May 28, the satellite photographed Sary Shagan, in which one could clearly see a “hen house” radar, with extended antenna array and control building.

The next day, May 29, the same satellite snapped a picture of Ramenskoye Flight Test Center, outside Moscow, where advanced Soviet bombers and fighters were tested, and of the Severodvinsk Shipyard, a major construction site for Soviet submarines.

Scrutinizing China

For the KH-7, China also contained a wealth of targets. Washington was worried about the Chinese nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Among the sites photographed May 2, 1965, during mission 4017, were the Chin-Chin Hsia Nuclear Energy Complex. Lop Nur, China’s nuclear testing facility in Xinjiang province, as well as its missile test center at Shuangchengzi, in north central China were prominent targets.

Between July 12, 1963, and Oct. 16, 1964, a period of intense Chinese nuclear weapons activity, the US launched 11 successful KH-7 missions. Imagery from those missions undoubtedly helped intelligence analysts in the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and State Department monitor developments at Lop Nur, as China prepared for its first nuclear weapon test in fall 1964. Surveillance targets could also be found outside the Communist world. Faced with loss of its nuclear test site in the Sahara, France decided to conduct atmospheric tests in French Polynesia—specifically on the Mururoa atoll and at Fangataufa—an activity that became a target on some KH-7 missions.

The first of a series of tests at the new location occurred July 2, 1966, followed by two more explosions that month. In the middle of the series, the United States orbited a KH-7, giving it the opportunity to photograph the aftermath of the first test and the preparations for the second.

Israel is another ally whose territory came under the watchful eye of the KH-7. Nearly 100 of the satellite images were of Israeli targets, undoubtedly including the Dimona nuclear reactor facility in the Negev desert and key air bases. These are the only images that have not been declassified.

On June 4, 1967, the United States orbited the final KH-7 satellite. Israel on the next morning launched a devastating surprise attack that wiped out the Egyptian Air Force, part of a response to Cairo’s closure of the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and blockade of the straits of Tiran. By noon June 5, Egypt had lost 309 of its 340 serviceable aircraft, including all 30 of its Tu-16 bombers that posed a threat to Israeli cities. Nearly all of its airfields were in ruins.

That day, the White House sent to the NRO an urgent request for photoreconnaissance coverage of one particular airfield—the Cairo International Airport—during the KH-7’s evening pass. This message was conveyed by secure telephone to Brig. Gen. Russell A. Berg, director of the NRO staff, who responded that “I would be most happy to satisfy the request if you could arrange to move Cairo Airport 150 miles to the north and 200 miles to the east.” An NRO history observed that the general’s “droll sense of humor served to highlight the inherent limitations imposed by the laws of orbital mechanics on a low Earth satellite’s ability to access any point on the Earth’s surface at will.”

High-Resolution Edge

In late August 1963, about six weeks after the first KH-7 mission, the NRO launched the first of a new model of the Corona satellite, carrying the KH-4A camera. In contrast to the earlier versions of Corona, the new satellite carried two film capsules, allowing for longer missions.

The difference in range of resolution, however, was minimal. KH-4 images varied from 10 to 25 feet in resolution while the resolution of KH-4A images ranged from nine to 25 feet. From the beginning of 1964 through the end of the KH-7 program, the only Corona satellites placed in orbit were KH-4As.

In contrast, the initial resolution of the KH-7 was about four feet and before the end of the program had reached two feet—all of which made a big difference to photointerpreters seeking to provide highly detailed intelligence about weapons systems or facilities. “Measurements were the big thing,” recalled former CIA photointerpreter Dino Brugioni, with respect to the KH-7.

The measurements and details available from KH-7 images of missiles and aircraft could be parlayed into estimates of range—allowing intelligence analysts at the CIA, DIA, or the Foreign Technology Division to assess whether an aircraft or missile had a theater or intercontinental mission. Former CIA photointerpreter David Doyle recalled that the KH-7 allowed him and his colleagues to distinguish between large and small aircraft and between swept- and straight-wing airplanes.

In addition, the high-resolution satellite gave interpreters a much clearer view of how the Soviets were constructing the SS-9 and SS-11 missile silos. The detailed images made it possible to determine if the silos were constructed using prefabricated parts or poured cement—an important consideration in estimating silo hardness, which was a key factor in determining what type of weapons were needed to destroy those silos in time of war.

Precision estimates of the size of buildings could also be important. KH-7 imagery of the nuclear reactor at Tomsk allowed analysts to assess, using the US reactor at Hanford, Wash., for comparison, the reactor’s productive capacity. KH-7 images, Brugioni recalled, “allowed architectural type drawings” of missiles and buildings.

Oblique images of nuclear facilities, particularly Chinese facilities, were often taken to provide data on the location, size, and shape of their transformers. The CIA already knew the capabilities of different transformers from Soviet publications, and a high-resolution image of the ones on Chinese facilities would allow better estimates of the power going in and the nuclear material coming out.

Sorting Things Out

Brugioni also recalled that “one of the big things” was the identification and enumeration of Soviet Army divisions. While Corona satellites allowed photointerpreters to find divisions, the KH-7 was crucial to sorting them out—for separating crack, reserve, and national guard type divisions. Because the US had been able to identify Soviet elite divisions in East Germany, analysts knew exactly what type and how much equipment, including tanks, a top-flight division possessed, when US aircraft flew through the Berlin Corridor. High-resolution satellite imagery of divisions in the Soviet Union even allowed interpreters to determine the status of the equipment those divisions possessed.

While the footprint of the KH-7 made it generally inappropriate for the search mission performed by Corona satellites, its higher resolution did make it easier for interpreters to find some things that Corona satellites could not detect. Thus, KH-7 images of Soviet microwave stations allowed interpreters to determine the orientation of the dishes, which facilitated further searches and the determination of Soviet communications networks.

In some cases, the additional clarity of the KH-7 images might be disillusioning. The US had “all kinds of sources, [and] knew what [the French] were doing,” with regard to their nuclear weapons program, including their establishment of a southern Pacific testing ground, Brugioni recalled. While the South Pacific location created the anticipation of beautiful Tahiti­like islands, the clear imagery from the KH-7 revealed that the places the French were working were decidedly “not paradise,” according to Brugioni.

The KH-7 represented a major advance in US intelligence capabilities. The KH-7 was “the rifle in our arsenal,” Brugioni said, because it could be pointed at a target and deliver precise images. To Doyle it was a “pretty good leap forward.”

The KH-7 was also the first Air Force success in the space reconnaissance field. Whereas the first Air Force reconnaissance satellite program—Samos—had failed, in all its various forms, to provide a useable satellite intelligence system, the Gambit program succeeded. Other successes would follow—including two radar imagery programs and several signals intelligence satellites. But the KH-7 was the first success.

The KH-7 program lasted for only four years, but it represented the first step toward an even better and long-lasting capability. When the KH-7 last flew in 1967, the Air Force Office of Special Projects had already overseen the development of, and the NRO had already orbited, four satellites carrying an improved high-resolution camera system, the KH-8. Its resolution was often in the area of six inches.

Jeffrey T. Richelson is a senior fellow and consultant of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., and author of numerous books on intelligence and military topics. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “When Secrets Crash,” appeared in the July 2001 issue.