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Imagery Intelligence Programs and Activities

The first Soviet reconnaissance satellite was launched in 1962. Over the next 30 years, the Soviets launched over 850 photoreconnaissance satellites. On average, the Soviets, and now the Russians, have been able to maintain 2 photoreconnaissance satellites in orbit each year with an average of 780 mission days per year. Russian imagery systems are assessed to be able to obtain resolutions of better than one-third of a meter. The Russians currently use three types of imagery satellites depending on the imagery requirement.

The third-generation photoreconnaissance satellite is a medium resolution system (1.5 to 3 meters) that is used for wide area surveillance missions. The satellite flies in low earth orbits at altitudes ranging from 235 to 245 kilometers. It is designed for mission durations of 2 to 3 weeks, and requires that the satellite be deorbited for return of film canisters. During Operation Desert Storm, the former Soviet Union launched three of these spacecraft to fly repetitive ground tracks over the Persian Gulf region. The capability to quickly launch and recover these satellites allowed the Soviets to double their coverage of the area in response to the intelligence requirements of Soviet political and military leaders. The Russians appear to be phasing the third-generation satellite out of operation in favor of follow-on systems.

The fourth-generation photoreconnaissance satellite provides the Russians with increased operational capabilities. The spacecraft flies elliptical orbits at altitudes of 170 kilometers, which improves resolution. The principal improvements in the systems are the ability to return film canisters without deorbiting the spacecraft, and the extension of orbital lifetime. The productive lifetime of the fourthgeneration satellite now averages 60 days per mission. During the last 5 years, the Russians have launched 6 high resolution satellites, and 1 topographic mapper annually. During the Persian Gulf War the former Soviets launched 4 fourth-generation satellites in a period of less than 90 days, illustrating the ability of the Russians to surge reconnaissance systems in times of crisis or international tension. The groundtrack of these satellites was aligned with the Persian Gulf region to provide additional coverage during daylight hours.

The fifth-generation satellite is an electrooptic imaging system that provides the Russians with near real-time imagery. The fifth-generation imagery satellite greatly improves the reconnaissance capabilities of the Russian Federation. It provides quicker return of intelligence data and ends the restrictions posed by the limited amount of film that can be carried by a photoreconnaissance satellite. In general, the fifth-generation satellite is used for global reconnaissance, and the third and fourth generation satellites are used for coverage of particularly sensitive areas.

Overall, the Russians have continued to maintain a robust space reconnaissance program, despite predictions that the program would wane after the demise of the Soviet Union. The Russians have been able to maintain a constellation of 160 satellites in orbit simultaneously, the same level as under the Soviet Union, despite a 35 percent reduction in launches. The one major problem faced by the Russians is the lack of an all weather/day/night imaging system. Both electro-optic and photographic systems require daylight and clear weather to be able to image an area. In the 1980s, the Soviet attempted to develop a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) system to provide all weather and night coverage. This program failed to develop a militarily acceptable product, and the resulting Almaz spacecraft was converted into a commercial mapping system. No comparable SAR system is currently known to be under development.

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Updated Wednesday, November 26, 1997 5:56:23 PM