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ASAT illustration
American interest in ASATs in the 1970s was driven in large part by a desire to counter Soviet ocean reconnaissance satellites. (credit: USAF)

Smashing RORSATs: the origin of the F-15 ASAT program

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In early 2008, when the United States Navy used a missile launched from a guided missile cruiser to shoot down a failed American reconnaissance satellite, many people in the United States and around the world interpreted it as a response to the Chinese test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon a year before. Although the US government went out of its way to assert that the action was entirely prompted by concern that toxins in the satellite could reach a populated area, it is certain that, during the weeks leading up to the shootdown, officials in the government debated the political aspects of the act, asking how it would be interpreted by other nations. Considering that both Russia and India have since stated their intentions to acquire ASAT capability, it is possible that the Chinese and American actions have had unintended political consequences. The only question remains whether or not political considerations actually contributed to the American decision to shoot down the satellite. Was the Bush Administration trying to send a message to the Chinese and the world? Perhaps someday an enterprising researcher will obtain declassified documents of the debate within the Bush administration and shed some public light on the calculations.

The documents indicate is that in the last year of the Ford Administration, the US government determined that Soviet satellite capabilities had changed sufficiently to justify the development of a limited American ASAT capability.

It is certain that such a debate occurred because we know of periodic debates throughout the space age about the utility of the United States acquiring an ASAT capability. Over the fifty-plus years of the space age the United States has had an inconsistent—some might even say schizophrenic—attitude toward developing ASATs. In fact, for much of that time the United States has lacked an ASAT capability. Sometimes this was due to a policy decision to pursue arms control rather than space weaponization. (See: “Blunt arrows: the limited utility of ASATs”, The Space Review, June 6, 2005) Hovering over all of these decisions was the fact that ASATs have rather limited utility; they have rarely been viewed as magic bullets.

Some recently declassified documents from the mid-1970s have shed some new light on the American pursuit of ASAT weapons. What the documents indicate is that in the last year of the Ford Administration, the United States government determined that Soviet satellite capabilities had changed sufficiently to justify the development of a limited American ASAT capability. The purpose for this new ASAT was to destroy Soviet ocean surveillance satellites, including their nuclear-powered radar ocean surveillance satellites known as RORSATs.

The United States had possessed an ASAT capability from the mid-1960s until 1972. Known as Program 437, it used spacecraft carrying 1.4 megaton nuclear bombs and launched atop Thor intermediate range ballistic missiles from an island in the Pacific Ocean. Program 437 was an expensive and limited capability weapon, and after a storm damaged the launch pad, the Air Force shut the program down. At the time this debate took place within the Ford Administration, the United States had been without an ASAT capability for several years. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was actively testing their own system.

A little light on the ASAT debate

In late 2009, the State Department declassified a handful of documents from 1976 concerning a study led by the National Security Council (NSC) on several issues related to the vulnerability of American satellites to attack and the need for a new U.S. ASAT capability. The documents are contained in the most recently published version of a State Department series known as Foreign Relations of the United States (or FRUS for short). The recent FRUS volume includes a chapter on space.

The existence of this 1976 discussion is not news. Paul Stares wrote about it in his excellent 1985 book on ASAT history, The Militarization of Outer Space. Stares based his discussion of the NSC study on several interviews he conducted with anonymous former NSC staffers. The account in Stares’ book differs slightly in tone with the newly declassified documents. Whereas Stares emphasized the international and arms control aspects of the NSC discussion, as well as the focus on American satellite vulnerability, the documents indicate that the NSC actually became concerned about a newly-emergent Soviet threat that required an American ASAT capability.

During this time period the Soviet Union was conducting tests of its co-orbital ASAT, which launched into orbit, moved near its target, and then exploded a conventional fragmentation warhead, like taking down a pigeon with a shotgun blast. The Soviets continued testing their ASAT despite the fact that in 1972 they had signed an arms control treaty with the United States agreeing to not interfere with “national technical means of verification”—i.e. American reconnaissance satellites.

The NSC panel stated that “there is an urgent need for the U.S. to have the capability to destroy a few militarily important Soviet space systems in crisis situations or in war.”

One of the FRUS documents, from June 1973, was a memo from Kenneth Rush, Deputy Secretary of State, to the acting Secretary of Defense. Rush referred to a recent DoD study of US responses to Soviet ASAT activities which called for a study of US space system vulnerability and development of a plan for an anti-satellite technology program. Although the Program 437 ASAT had not been completely shut down at the time Rush wrote his memo, it was clearly non-operational and in the process of dismantling. Rush noted that any new American efforts to start an ASAT program would likely become public and that there would be possible negative consequences. In fact, a year earlier, when Rush had been Deputy Secretary of Defense, he had signed an order declaring ASAT research to be classified. Clearly he did not think that it could stay secret. Now Rush recommended a high level interagency review of the issues involved concerning ASAT research.

According to Stares, at least one classified study began looking into the issues of the vulnerability of American satellites to attack in the new Ford Administration. This was prompted by several incidents in late 1975 where American satellites were apparently blinded or interfered with by the Soviet Union. The United States government officially determined that these were natural events, not deliberate interference, but not everybody who knew about these incidents agreed with the official explanation.

Vulnerability and ASATs

A resumption of Soviet ASAT tests in February 1976 helped highlight the satellite vulnerability issue. In March 1976, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft informed President Gerald Ford that the National Security Council had initiated a study of three related issues: “1-near-term measures (3-5 years) which can be taken to decrease the vulnerability of our satellites; 2-projection of the military use of space over the next 15 years, including analysis of the problems of satellite survivability; and, 3-the most feasible options for development of a U.S. anti-satellite capability.”

In April, Scowcroft sent another memo to the President after the Soviets conducted another ASAT test. His memo referred to the ongoing NSC study, and noted that “although the Soviet capability is limited, it is probably sufficient to completely deny U.S. satellite photo reconnaissance missions for periods up to years if the Soviets were willing to risk the serious repercussions such an attack in space entail. They could also selectively deny several other critical U.S. low altitude missions, including the Navy ocean surveillance satellites and the submarine navigation satellites.” Scowcroft also added that development of a US ASAT “will not contribute to the survivability of U.S. space assets.”

In July, the National Security Council issued National Security Decision Memorandum 333, “Enhanced Survivability of Critical U.S. Military and Intelligence Space Systems.” NSDM 333 stated that the President had directed that the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence prepare an action plan to improve the survivability of American military and intelligence satellites to Soviet attack.

Also in July, the NSC panel produced its interim report on the need for a US ASAT. Their primary conclusion was that such a capability was necessary and that “the need for such a U.S. anti-satellite capability is related to its military value and is not directly related to the Soviet anti-satellite program.” After receiving the interim report, Ford requested that the final report be completed as soon as possible. As a result, the panel decided to split its report into three parts and to deliver the ASAT report early, with the satellite vulnerability reports delivered later.

ASAT test
A test of an ASAT launched from an F-15. (credit: USAF)

Smashing satellites

In early November 1976, the NSC panel produced its final report on the need for an American ASAT weapon. The panel concluded that Soviet space capabilities had changed from general intelligence collection to direct support of military forces, and that their new capabilities, particularly to use satellites to target American warships at sea, justified the development of an American ASAT. The panel stated that “there is an urgent need for the U.S. to have the capability to destroy a few militarily important Soviet space systems in crisis situations or in war.”

The NSC study was emphatic that the reason the United States needed an ASAT was not to trade it away in an arms control agreement, but to attack Soviet ocean surveillance satellites.

In particular, the Soviets had developed electronic ocean surveillance satellites (commonly referred to as EORSATs) and radar ocean surveillance satellites (RORSATs) that could provide the locations of American warships to Soviet surface ships and submarines. The Soviet vessels also had acquired long-range missiles and “this long-range missile threat to the U.S. surface Navy is of great concern and, if not countered, could bring the viability of the surface fleet into serious question.”

The Soviet satellites were few in number and at low altitude, and if they were destroyed the Soviets would be forced to find American ships using submarines and aircraft, which were limited and could be countered by the Navy.

In addition to the Soviet ocean surveillance threat, the Soviets also operated low altitude communications satellites and photo-reconnaissance satellites that could also be targets. But these were lower priority than the EORSATs and RORSATs.

The report noted that a previous Air Force Aerospace Defense Command requirement for US ASAT capability called for the ability to destroy 20 low altitude, 5 intermediate altitude, and 15 high altitude satellites within 24 hours. This requirement to wipe out 40 satellites in a range of orbits and a short period of time “would result in a long development program and a high cost operational system,” according to one official.

The NSC panel recommended much less stringent requirements. They suggested that the ASAT be capable of limited operations by the end of 1980, be directed at low altitude satellites, have a response time of about a day from Soviet launch until US intercept, and be capable of making 6–10 intercepts in a week.

The panel’s final presentation was made to Ford in December 1976, by which time it was clear that Jimmy Carter would replace Ford as president. According to Stares, Ford was apparently so alarmed by what he regarded as the Department of Defense’s lackadaisical attitude toward developing an ASAT that he directed that the US seek to develop an ASAT capability as recommended by the NSC. This resulted in National Security Decision Memorandum 345, signed on January 18, 1977. NSDM committed the nation to developing a new ASAT.

But two days later Ford was out and Carter was in and it was up to the new president to decide what to do. Carter pursued a two-track policy: negotiations with the Soviet Union over an ASAT ban, and development of a new ASAT. Eventually, ASAT arms control failed, and the research program transitioned to a weapons system and was tested during the subsequent Reagan administration. The system involved a “miniature homing vehicle” mounted atop a missile fired from an F-15 aircraft. After several tests, a contentious fight in Congress, and a massive increase in costs, the Reagan Administration shelved the system.

Although these newly declassified documents do not fundamentally change our understanding of this period, they do appear to change the interpretation of the debate that occurred during the Ford administration. Although the vulnerability of American satellites to Soviet attack was important, and punctuated each time the Soviet Union blasted one of their orbiting satellites with their new weapon, the NSC study was emphatic that the reason the United States needed an ASAT was not to trade it away in an arms control agreement, but to attack Soviet ocean surveillance satellites.