[FPSPACE] KH-12 (improved KH-11): Quo Vadis?
pjp961 at svol.net
Tue Feb 17 10:45:05 EST 2015
[due to recent family events, I will be taking a hiatus from posting news
items to the fpspace list serv]
Strategypage.com via Matthew Aid's blog
ce-agency-gets-most> National Geospatial-Intelliegence Agency Gets Most of
Its Satellite Photos From Commercial Satellites
February 16, 2015
How Google Killed The KH-12
February 16, 2015
The American NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) recently admitted
what everyone already suspected, that it gets most of its satellite photos
from commercial satellites. This was no secret inside the military. That's
because since the late 1990s, when commercial photo satellites began to show
up, military users were quick to buy and use this unclassified data. The
commercial photo satellites gradually caught up with their military
counterparts (which first appeared in the 1960s) and got even more business
from the military. What really got this movement going was the 2005
appearance of Google Earth (earth.google.com). This easy-to-use web-based
app revolutionized military intelligence. The military didn't like to admit
it at first. But Google Earth putting so much satellite photography at the
disposal of so many people, in such an easy-to-use fashion, also made much
more information available to military professionals (and terrorists, and
criminals and academics as well). All of these military users quickly
appreciated what a splendid new tool they had.
To the U.S. Department of Defense, Google Earth's major problem was not
it's ease-of-use, but the manner in which it showcased the shortcomings of
the NGA, which was responsible for taking the satellite photos, spiffing
them up as needed, and getting them to the troops. Trouble is, the stuff
still wasn't getting to the troops that needed it, when they needed it. This
was made very obvious when Google Earth showed up, and demonstrated how you
can get satellite images to anyone, when they need them and do it with
The NGA and other government agencies liked to keep all satellite (and
aerial) in classified archives, just in case they contained some secrets a
potential enemy could use. Google Earth did great damage to this attitude.
Changing minds in the military intelligence community isn't easy. The
restricted access to satellite photos is an old problem. Since the 1980s
(when lots more satellite images became available, often on very short
notice) generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery" have
been complaining about the difficulty they had in getting their hands on
this stuff or passing it on to the officers and troops who need it most.
Hundreds of billions of dollars has been spent on photo satellites since
the 1960s, and the troops always seem to get leftovers, if anything and
usually too late to be of any use. Yet the satellite people regularly conned
Congress out of more money so they could build more satellites, and neat
systems that would get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods
never arrived, or never arrived in time. Generals gave angry testimony
before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 Kuwait War. The
satellite people seemed contrite and said they would make it right. If given
the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing.
Then the troops got access to Google Earth in 2005 and saw firsthand what
they have been missing. To make matters worse the software Google Earth uses
to get the job done was first developed for the NGA. But the way the NGA
operates you had to worry about security considerations and all manner of
bureaucratic details before you could deploy a useful tool so they really
couldn't use the Google interface on a wide scale. Mention that the troops
in question are fighting a war and the NGA will point out that you still
have to deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight.
Soon after 2005 the troops were beating NGA over the head with Google
Earth and Congress took notice. However, NGA bureaucrats were close at hand
and the angry troops are far away. Progress was still slow. But at least the
troops had Google Earth. Unfortunately, so does the enemy. Nevertheless over
the next decade the army was able to go directly to commercial satellite
photo providers who, every year, were putting up more capable photo
satellites. Many of the photos from these new satellites were higher
resolution and not available on Google Earth. But the army could afford to
buy them (as could other commercial customers) and give the troops instant
access because all these commercial satellite photos were unclassified.
After a while NGA stopped pouting and got on board with the use of lots
of unclassified satellite photos. This also spurred the NGA to make the high
quality (high resolution and with other enhancements) spy satellite photos
more easily available to the troops, or at least the army intel and planning
specialists who worked out the details of how battles would be fought. This
led to other intel agencies making their data (especially from electronic
data collection satellites) available quickly (often in real time) to the
troops who needed it.
While Google Earth opened the flood gates and gave the troops instant
access, what happened first was the availability of high resolution
satellite photos that could be of use to combat troops. This began in the
1960s with the first appearance of the KH (Key Hole) series of photo
satellites. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959 but the
first successful one was in 1960. Thus until the 1970s the film-using
satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations. The KH 1 through 9 series
satellites sent film back in canisters (for high resolution pictures), to be
developed. The Keyhole 9, the first of which went up in 1971, was not only
the last of the film satellites but the largest and most capable. Its basic
design was used by the subsequent digital camera birds. The KH 9 could cover
large areas at high (for the time) resolution of .6 meters (24 inches). This
was more than adequate to spot and count tanks, aircraft, and even small
warships. The 19th, and last, KH 9 went up in 1984. The KH-9 was a 13 ton
satellite with multiple cameras and 4 or 5 reentry vehicles for returning
the film for developing and analysis. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird.
The age of film began to fade when the first digital satellite, the KH
11, was launched in 1976. These birds were large, nearly 15 tons, and the
digital cameras could obtain better resolution and broadcast the photos back
to earth. The resolution was such that objects 70mm (a few inches) in size
could be identified from 200 kilometers. Digital cameras were more flexible
than film and eventually surpassed film in all categories. The KH-11
telescopic cameras operated like a high resolution TV camera. Images were
captured continuously and transmitted to earth stations. Computers were used
to finish the process and produce photos identical to those taken by a
conventional film camera. You could even have motion pictures, as well as
indications of heat and the nature of the various items. KH-11 could often
tell what kind of metal an object on the ground was made of.
All this did not come cheap. These birds cost over $400 million each and
lasted three or four years, depending on fuel usage. Moreover, you needed
two of them up at the same time in order to guarantee coverage and save the
birds from having to change orbit too frequently. The most recent KH-11, the
15th, was launched in 2011. There have been at least four models of the
KH-11, since the first of five "Block 1s" was launched in 1976. Since the
1960s over a hundred KH series satellites have been launched.
The next generation, the KH-12, was supposed to have been launched in
1987. But because of problems with the space shuttle (one had exploded
during launch), only a belated KH-11 was launched in October, 1987. The
KH-12 was delayed, even though it had several advantages over the KH-11.
Along with improvements in ground data processing equipment, the KH-12 could
send back data in real time. You could watch events on a large, high
resolution screen as they were happening. This would also allow military
headquarters and other users to get their satellite information directly,
without going through a CIA or NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)
processing center. Data from the more esoteric sensors would still have to
be studied by the specialists elsewhere. The KH-12 was expected to make
users even more enthusiastic about satellite reconnaissance. It did, in the
form of a much upgraded KH-11. Actually these birds were called KH-12s but
are still officially known as KH-11.
The flood of photographic and electronic data was growing far larger than
the force of analysts needed to make something of it. In addition to the KH
series birds, there were radar and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) satellites
constantly broadcasting data. Then there are the Defense Support Program
satellites, which use heat sensors to locate the hot plumes of missile
There still isn't a real KH-12 (a new design), and that's partly because
commercial photo satellites have become cheaper and more convenient for
military use. Many KH-12 features were simply added to subsequent KH-11
models. This was cheaper than building the new KH-12 design and involved
less paperwork. Thus, those in charge of American space operations are
asking that less money be spent on developing new satellites and more spent
on building up a reserve of GPS and communications satellites that can
quickly be launched to replace wartime losses. The Department of Defense has
already been buying more commercial satellites, rather than much more
expensive, usually late, and sometimes cancelled, custom designed military
birds. Contributing to this change were bumbling bureaucrats who mismanaged
development projects and journalists who headlined the failures.
In 2007 the Department of Defense agreed to spend $10 billion to build
two military grade photo-satellites, similar to the ones already in orbit,
plus two commercial grade photo satellites. This uncharacteristically
prudent behavior was forced on them by Congress. The politicians were angry
over the failure of the Department of Defense to design and build a new
generation of military photo satellites. For example, in 2005 the U.S.
cancelled the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) system. This disaster cost
the government more than $10 billion when a poorly conceived and run effort
to create a more powerful new generation of intelligence satellites failed.
Instead of FIA, the two existing military photo satellites were simply
replaced with similar designs. In addition, the Pentagon bought two
commercial photo satellites, for about $850 million each, to replace what
the Department of Defense is currently spending on photos from commercial
photo satellite companies. The two commercial birds, which were owned by the
Department of Defense.
The FIA (Future Imagery Architecture) system was to be a new generation
of smaller and more numerous spy satellites that would provide more coverage
of targets down below and, because of the larger number of satellites, a
more difficult target for anyone seeking to destroy the U.S. spy satellite
capability. The KH series birds were to retire in 2005, replaced by FIA
satellites. The project, begun in 1998, was poorly designed and managed. In
retrospect, it was doomed from the start because of a lack of technical
talent on the government side and the selection of the low bidder (Boeing)
that lacked the experience and capabilities to carry out a job like this.
When FIA was cancelled in 2005 work continued on individual new satellites.
One of the FIA designs, the Topaz radar satellite managed to see two in
orbit by the end of 2013. The KH birds are not going to retire by the end of
the decade, having been extended by the continued use of the KH-12. This is
not a new design but a much improved and upgraded KH-11. The KH-12 always
existed as a nickname for the latest version of the KH-11.
It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial
photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and
buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies
often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can
provide. The government also wants to ensure secrets are kept by having
complete control over a pair of commercial grade satellites.
The two new government owned commercial birds took over the task of
tracking troop movements, bases, and military operations in general. The two
new high resolution, military grade, spy satellites were improved versions
of existing ones. These are used to get detailed (able to detect something
smaller than an inch) photos of something the commercial grade images (able
to detect something 30-45 cm/12-18 inches in size) found interesting.
The troops and military planners are also big users of Google Earth,
which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many
military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military,
commercial grade, photo satellites eliminated the potential for information
leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more
capacity to do low resolution jobs.
The people who run the military satellite system are increasingly
concerned with wartime needs, and that is what brought out the request for
spare GPS and communications satellites. These are relatively cheap,
compared to the spy satellites, and most needed if a future war spreads to
the orbital zone and puts some American birds out of action. There is also
growing concern about the debris in orbit and the increasing risk of
satellites being damaged, or destroyed, by these small fragments of older
satellites and the rockets that put them there.
Meanwhile, the KH-12 is fading away as the last of improved KH-11 was put
into orbit in 2013.
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