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F-15 aSAT test
A 1985 test of an anti-satellite missile released from an F-15 fighter. Intelligence on Soviet ASAT activities played a role in policy decisions in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the development of this ASAT weapon as well as support for SDI. (credit: USAF)

Spooks and satellites: the role of intelligence in Cold War American space policy

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In 1978, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Admiral Stansfield Turner declared that the “Russians can kill us in space.” Shortly thereafter, President Carter approved the Pentagon’s request to test an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon to place greater pressure on the USSR over ASAT arms control. Reagan Administration officials regularly invoked intelligence on Soviet space activities to justify both the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the Miniature Homing Vehicle (MHV) ASAT program. The declassified intelligence record reveals that the US Intelligence Community was less alarmist in its assessments of Soviet military space capabilities than some public statements suggested. Intelligence did, nevertheless, play a direct role in the decisions to develop US ASATs, and later to justify space-based missile defense. Perhaps most interestingly, the Reagan administration systematically released sanitized intelligence on Soviet military capabilities in the publication Soviet Military Power to garner greater support for SDI. Now, with the declassification of relevant national security documents on Soviet space activity, it is possible to better understand the role of intelligence in shaping American space policy during the Cold War.

Collecting intelligence on the Soviet space program

Since even before the founding of the National Reconnaissance Office in 1961, the vulnerability of intelligence satellites was of concern to US national security leaders. This was due in large part to the shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers in a U-2 over the USSR in 1960. Intelligence officials believed that the Soviets could also develop the means to destroy American reconnaissance satellites; it was just a matter of when. The premium placed on information about Soviet space and missile activities prompted DCI John McCone, in October 1963, to establish the Foreign Missile and Space Analysis Center (FMSAC) within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This new organization operated 24 hours per day and 365 days per year, gathering intelligence from multiple sources to produce immediate assessments of Soviet space and missile activities. FMSAC became the focal point for all-source intelligence analysis on the Soviet space program.

Since even before the founding of the National Reconnaissance Office in 1961, the vulnerability of intelligence satellites was of concern to US national security leaders.

Also in the early 1960s, the National Security Agency (NSA) established its Space Surveillance SIGINT Program “to meet high priority SIGINT requirements relating to Soviet space activities.” NSA followed the CIA’s example and established its own around-the-clock operations floor called the Space Surveillance SIGINT Center at NSA Headquarters; it formally entered into operation in early 1964. To more effectively collect SIGINT on Soviet space launches, the NSA established its STONEHOUSE collection site in Ethiopia. Intelligence on Soviet space activity generated by both the CIA and NSA later directly contributed to the indications and warning missions at the Space Defense Center that was located in Cheyenne Mountain.

In the 1960s, the Intelligence Community began examining methods for reacting to potential Soviet interference with reconnaissance satellite operations. Albert Wheelon, who served as the CIA’s deputy director for science and technology, instructed the Office of Scientific Intelligence to increase the flow of information on Soviet ASAT activity to the operational elements of the NRO in the form of quarterly reports. He wanted intelligence on Soviet ASAT capabilities to inform acquisition and engineering decisions within NRO. He identified the Special Projects Staff as having the responsibility to develop tactics and techniques for “reducing the vulnerability of satellite systems.” A 1968 declassified memorandum on ASAT countermeasures says “survival aids are available” but will not be included in all systems, “including SIGINT.” It also cautions that survival aids could “substantially reduce [satellite effectiveness].” The challenge was balancing the need to protect intelligence satellites without substantially affecting their primary role as a collection system.

Intelligence informing space policy

Due to concerns about potential Soviet space threats in the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration approved the development of an ASAT program called Program 437 that used a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. Because of its expense and technical limitations, the program was ultimately terminated in 1975, and had been in limited operation since 1972. In the late 1960s, the Soviets commenced testing of a co-orbital ASAT system, which elevated the subject of satellite vulnerability, once again, to a national-level policy issue.

One of the overriding objectives of American national security and foreign policy during the Cold War was preserving freedom of overflight from space. Consequently, until the late 1970s, the White House maintained that the United States should only possess a very limited ASAT capability to defend against Soviet space threats. After the cancellation of Program 437, the United States did not have an operational ASAT until the mid-1980s. Beginning in the early 1970s, intelligence about Soviet military space activity prompted a re-examination of US national security space policy, on the subject of ASATs in particular.

DCI George H.W. Bush was especially concerned about the vulnerability of US intelligence satellites and advocated a reappraisal of US national security space policy.

Starting in the early 1970s, renewed tests of the Soviet ASAT program were being highlighted in the President’s Daily Brief. Due to this intelligence, in November 1971 National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger called for a study of US responses to Soviet ASAT activities. The key question was whether or not the United States needed a more capable ASAT. The Nixon administration ultimately concluded that the further development of an American ASAT could undermine the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and did not pursue a new ASAT program at that time.

The Ford Administration did not, however, share Nixon’s reticence to re-invigorate US ASAT efforts. DCI George H.W. Bush was especially concerned about the vulnerability of US intelligence satellites and advocated a reappraisal of US national security space policy. Key intelligence questions in the mid-1970s included the following: to what degree were the Soviets dependent on space systems? What were the goals of Moscow’s military space program? How capable was the Soviet ASAT? Establishing Soviet dependency on space systems had significant implications for deciding whether or not to develop an American ASAT for purposes of deterrence.

In the summer of 1975, a formal intelligence study was commissioned on Soviet military space capabilities. The report concluded that the Soviet co-orbital ASAT reached “full operational capability in 1971” and had demonstrated the ability to intercept targets up to 550 nautical miles and would likely be “capable of intercepts at up to 2,500 nm altitude.” Furthermore, analysts believed that “the Soviets have also demonstrated a capability to perform some of the orbital operations required to intercept a satellite in geostationary orbit.” Additionally, the report highlighted the Soviet Radar Ocean Surveillance Satellite (RORSAT) program that had been underway since 1967. It stated that RORSAT had a “limited capability” to determine some ship locations. This intelligence assessment ended with the observation that Soviet dependence on space systems was increasing but that the vulnerability of Moscow’s satellites would not necessarily “deter them from interfering with US satellites in the face of other compelling reason[s] to do so.”

In November 1976, a National Security Council study concluded that Soviet space capabilities were being used for tactical military support and that their ability to target American naval vessels necessitated the development of an American ASAT. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft did not believe, however, that the US ASAT would contribute to the survivability of American satellites through deterrence. One of the final acts of the Ford Administration was signing National Security Decision Memorandum 345 to establish a new ASAT capability that included both a kinetic-kill component and an electronic interference system.

When Jimmy Carter came into office, he wanted to reach an agreement with the Soviets that banned ASATs. He nevertheless believed that it was necessary to continue developing an ASAT, but that nothing should be tested in space. Ultimately, efforts to get the Soviets to agree on ASAT limits were unsuccessful and he authorized the Pentagon to test against US objects in space. Especially in light of arms control negotiations taking place, testing ASATs could have been viewed as very destabilizing. To justify this activity, DCI Stansfield Turner said publicly that “the Russians can kill us in space.” While hyperbole is often used to support policy decisions, it is worth noting that the Intelligence Community maintained into the 1980s that Soviet ASATs were still “limited and [fell] short of meeting the apparent requirement to be able to deny enemy use of space in wartime.” Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s comment that the Soviets had the ability to destroy “at least some” US satellites in low Earth orbit was more in line with the position of the Intelligence Community. Fundamentally, there was a threat, but it was limited in size and sophistication.

Secretary of Defense Weinberger, in particular, believed that it was absolutely vital to counter the Soviet campaign that charged the United States with weaponizing space through the development of SDI.

The Reagan White House placed greater emphasis on national security space issues than any previous administration. The president even created a Senior Interagency Group (SIG) for space on the National Security Council that elevated it to the same level, bureaucratically, as intelligence and defense. In December 1982, the president signed a national security study directive on space strategy that stated the Soviets had “initiated a major campaign to capture the ‘high ground’ of space.” This study called for examining the need for a separate military space service and a combatant command for space operations.

In March 1983, Reagan formally announced what would become one of the most controversial efforts during his presidency: the Strategic Defense Initiative, derisively known as “Star Wars.” He wanted to develop a layered missile defense system with interceptors in space that could render the threat of strategic nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” While it did not serve as the main reason behind SDI, intelligence on Soviet research into space-based missile defense became a central justification for the program.

In August 1983, Larry Gershwin, who was serving as the National Intelligence Officer for Strategic Programs, argued in a memorandum that the US government had not done an effective job of “refuting Soviet claims” about the United States weaponizing space. This led to a larger discussion about how to best counter the Soviet narrative and build broader support for SDI. The Intelligence Community began to more specifically highlight Soviet laser, ASAT, and missile defense research in Soviet Military Power, which the Pentagon published for the general public. The Intelligence Community reviewed each edition before going to press to ensure that sensitive sources and methods were not compromised. Nevertheless, Soviet Military Power raised concerns among some intelligence officials. Gershwin wrote in a 1986 memorandum that “institutionaliz[ing] the periodic publishing” of unclassified papers based on sanitized intelligence could make it increasingly difficult to protect sensitive sources and methods. Most of the pressure to continue publishing Soviet Military Power and other unclassified papers on Soviet strategic defense research came from the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Weinberger, in particular, believed that it was absolutely vital to counter the Soviet campaign that charged the United States with weaponizing space through the development of SDI.

Weinberger and other senior national security leaders believed that educating the public on Soviet military programs, thorough continuing to selectively release intelligence, was essential for countering Moscow’s anti-SDI narrative. In his book The Dead Hand, David Hoffman argues that Soviet Military Power greatly exaggerated the Soviet threat. While we now know that many of the assessments about Soviet military capabilities were overstated, the key question is whether or not Soviet Military Power (and similar US government publications) mischaracterized US intelligence about Soviet space-based missile defense and ASAT capabilities in the 1980s. Hoffman quotes from the papers of Vasily Kataeyev, a Soviet physicist who advised Gorbachev, as saying that the claims made in Soviet Military Power were “hype” and that the most advanced “prototypes of such [space] weapons could not be created any sooner than the year 2000.” Similarly, the Intelligence Community consistently maintained that the Soviets would not have an operational space-based laser missile defense system “until after the year 2000.” A 1985 unclassified Pentagon publication called Soviet Strategic Defense Programs stated that the Soviets “might be able to deploy space-based laser systems for defense against ballistic missiles after the year 2000.”

It is clearly evident that intelligence, at the very least, provided justification for national security decisions like the re-invigoration of the US ASAT program and the pursuit of SDI.

It is difficult to establish whether or not these unclassified publications had any discernible effect on public opinion. Polling data reveals that SDI remained popular among the general public, but this cannot necessarily be attributed to the US government’s information campaign. Through the end of the Cold War, assessments in Soviet Military Power continued to mirror the language in National Intelligence Estimates on Soviet capabilities. The National Interest has alleged that Soviet Military Power was a propaganda effort to garner support for Reagan-era programs like SDI. Whether or not propaganda is an accurate characterization of Soviet Military Power is a subject for debate, but it is a fact that the publication did not exaggerate intelligence on Soviet space weapons research.


Ascertaining the influence of intelligence on national security policy can be extremely difficult. Even if declassified intelligence documents are in line with policy decisions, we cannot be certain that the former was the reason behind the latter. At times, National Security Council documents specifically identified intelligence assessments, which at least provides context for the decision-making process. The purpose of this paper is to highlight that intelligence about Soviet military space activity was a key concern going back to the early days of the Space Age. Additionally, it is clearly evident that intelligence, at the very least, provided justification for national security decisions like the re-invigoration of the US ASAT program and the pursuit of SDI. Whether or not these programs were strategically necessary is another topic for analysis, but we can establish what senior national security leaders knew and thought about Soviet military space developments during the Cold War. Further examination of the intelligence record will likely add significantly more nuance to our understanding of the American Cold War space programs, both civil and national security.

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