34. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

No. 1391/64


  • The Soviet Reconnaissance Satellite Program

A Soviet military reconnaissance satellite program appears to be well under way with possibly as many as 12 flights since 1962. The program uses recoverable vehicles launched from Tyuratam under the mantle of the Cosmos series. The camera system, providing an estimated resolution between 10 and 30 feet, probably is carried in the 10,400-pound Vostok vehicle. The program is expensive, possibly costing as much as 500 to 700 million dollars so far, and places added demands on resources available for Soviet space programs. A requirement for precise targeting information on US targets, not obtainable through other collection means, seems to be the primary reason for the program. Also, Soviet collection of other military intelligence on the US could be usefully supplemented by satellite photography. Khrushchev’s open acknowledgments of the program have been aimed at stopping U–2 flights over Cuba, but also imply a desire for a tacit understanding on reconnaissance satellites. The existence of the Soviet program tends to reduce the likelihood of a Soviet attempt to attack a US satellite.

We have concluded that the Soviet military reconnaissance satellite program may have involved as many as 12 flights since 1962. The evidence is convincing that these were military reconnaissance satellites, [Page 93] although they may have had additional missions. Their launch times and orbits were ideally suited for reconnaissance coverage of the US during daylight hours, the payload was recovered, they were earth oriented and stabilized within the requirements of a sophisticated camera system, and telemetry from them reflected payload activity like that of a reconnaissance photographic payload.
A study of the 16 Cosmos satellites successfully launched from Tyuratam between 26 April 1962 and 10 June 1964 leads us to believe that four of them were military reconnaissance satellites, eight others probably were, and four probably were not.
We cannot make a firm judgment on the quality of the Soviet reconnaissance photography with the limited data now available. On the basis of what we know about Soviet optical competence and film technology and the operational characteristics of these satellites, we estimate that the camera system could provide resolution between 10 and 30 feet. Telemetry from some of the Cosmos satellites suggests that they employed three framing cameras plus an indexing camera.
Moscow has held that the purpose of the Cosmos series, which began in March 1962, was to collect scientific data. It became clear, however, that different types of vehicles were being launched from two different rangeheads, Kapustin Yar and Tyuratam, and the characteristics of the 14 satellites successfully orbited from Kapustin Yar rule out a reconnaissance mission.
The 16 successful Cosmos operations from Tyuratam which we have examined are believed to have used the basic 10,400-pound Vostok vehicle, with the possible exception of Cosmos 22 and 30. All were recovered in the Soviet Union three to ten days after launching. The most recent in the series, Cosmos 32, had an inclination of 51 degrees to the equator, while all previous Tyuratam Cosmos satellites had inclinations of 65 degrees. This change suggests that the Soviets are improving their reconnaissance program because the inclination of Cosmos 32 permitted greater coverage of the US each day.
The series launched from Tyuratam may have had other missions in addition to photographic reconnaissance. The presence of a small radiation package aboard most vehicles is one example of such a secondary mission. Four meteorological satellites in the series transmitted cloud pictures from orbit but this photography was not of military reconnaissance quality. Two of these could also have provided geodetic mapping data. Other research work probably is involved, such as development of lunar and planetary mapping.
We have identified most of the Tyuratam satellites as military reconnaissance vehicles on the basis of detailed examination of all their [Page 94] known characteristics. Among the indicators of a reconnaissance mission, we note the following:
Orbital elements: With the exception of Cosmos 4 and 9, the apogees, perigees, and orbital periods of these satellites were ideally suited for reconnaissance and were not completely compatible with any other mission. (see Table 1 and Figure 1)2
Launch times: All Tyuratam Cosmos vehicles have been launched during a time which assured daylight conditions on the ground on all south to north passes over the Northern Hemisphere. (see Figures 2 and 3)
Payload recovery and mission lifetime: Each vehicle stays up at least until it begins to retrace the same ground area, and the payloads are recovered.
Weather factors: Preliminary analysis suggests that launch dates have coincided with generally clear weather over the United States.
Orientation and stabilization: The vehicles are earth oriented and stabilized about three axes with the rate of vehicle motion—.01 to .02 degrees per second—held within the requirements of a sophisticated camera system.
Ground command activity: The ground command system, which is capable of handling at least 240 different commands, is the kind which would be needed to support present and future reconnaissance satellite requirements. The Cosmos satellites so far are known to have employed at least twenty different commands involving three different ground stations in the USSR.
Telemetry data recorded during payload activity: Every one of these satellites stored data during certain times of interest when the vehicle was not over the Soviet Union, and subsequently played it back when over Soviet ground stations. We have determined after analyzing this activity that stabilization corrections were made during the early recording period, and that after the vehicle was stabilized, operation of payload mechanisms began. At no time during the payload operation was any attitude correction applied. The way in which the four mechanisms observed on Cosmos 20 functioned was consistent with the operation of a small indexing camera and three higher resolution cameras. (see Figure 3)
Soviet statements: Khrushchev himself has alluded to Soviet satellite reconnaissance on several occasions. In 1963, he told Belgian Foreign Minister Spaak that the Soviets were engaged in photographing the United States and that he could produce the photographs to prove [Page 95] it. Former Senator Benton also quoted Khrushchev as saying, during their recent meeting in Moscow, that Soviet space cameras have filmed US military installations.3
If we are correct in concluding that most of the Cosmos satellites launched from Tyuratam have a reconnaissance mission, it would seem that Moscow is devoting a substantial share of its space effort to the collection of military intelligence. According to preliminary estimates based on the costs of US scientific satellites, the cost of Tyuratam Cosmos operations to date may have amounted to the equivalent of about 700 million to one billion dollars, roughly 20 percent of total expenditures estimated for all observed Soviet space programs. As a rough proportion of this estimate, the costs of a military reconnaissance program including the 12 satellites launched so far would be on the order of 500 to 700 million dollars.
Also important is the additional strain imposed on the human and material resources available for Soviet space programs by the demands of a reconnaissance program.
We believe that the USSR has made this large investment primarily for missile targeting purposes. Strategic missile systems require precise information on the geodetic relationship of the target to the launch point, particularly in the case of hardened targets. The precise targeting information needed on the hundreds of targets in the US is only obtainable by satellite photography. The resolution we estimate the Soviets can achieve—10 to 30 feet—would be sufficient to obtain such targeting information when combined with other geodetic mapping data.
Despite the USSR’s comparatively easy access to much information on military weapons and installations in the US it has requirements for military reconnaissance satellites beyond those for targeting data.
Supplementary intelligence on trends in the organization, deployment, and strengths of US strategic missile, long-range bomber, and naval carrier forces could be gained through satellite photography.
The USSR also has a requirement for high resolution photography—five feet or better—for technical analysis of classified US installations only accessible to overhead reconnaissance.
The Soviets probably have a requirement for a reconnaissance system capable of transmitting photos while in flight. Such a system could provide intelligence on movements of US strategic forces during crisis and wartime situations, and on results of wartime strikes.
In view of Soviet activity in the reconnaissance satellite field, Moscow may be more tolerant of similar US programs than it has been [Page 96] in the past. Khrushchev’s recent open acknowledgment of both US and Soviet efforts tends to bear this out. Although his immediate objective in these remarks has been to secure a cessation of U–2 flights over Cuba, they suggest a desire on his part for a tacit understanding with the US on reconnaissance satellites.
We believe that the Soviets intend to develop an antisatellite capability. We have no evidence of such a development, but they may develop a limited capability at an early date so as to be able to retaliate if the US should interfere with a Soviet satellite. In our view, however, the existence of a Soviet reconnaissance satellite program tends to reduce the likelihood of a Soviet attempt to destroy or neutralize a US satellite.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Space, Outer, Vol. II, 5/1–, Box 37. Secret. Prepared jointly in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Intelligence.
  2. Neither the table nor any of the figures is printed.
  3. See Document 32.