Jeffrey LewisSayonara, Misty

CQ’s Tim Stark reports that new Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has canceled the Misty “stealth” satellite.

Patrick Radden Keefe—who wrote the awesome CHATTER—has the details over at Danger Room.

The cancellation of the Misty stealthsat—which, let’s face it, wasn’t particularly stealthy—leaves the United States dependent on the Future Imagery Architecture to replace the current generation of KH-11 imaging satellites—the last of which was launched inn 2005.

FIA, has had its own troubles and, according to Space News, has been sent back to the drawing board:

According to sources, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which buys and operates the nation’s spy satellites, is considering two main alternatives: a low-risk system relying heavily on proven technology, and a more capable system that likely would take longer and cost more to build. There also could be various combinations of the two.

The choice ultimately will depend in part on the how much funding is available in an era when many expect increased pressure on budgets for classified collection systems. Time is of the essence, because currently there is no long-term program in place for supplying the electro-optical imagery upon which the U.S. national security community so heavily relies, sources said.

[Thanks to Allen Thomson for bringing this to my attention.]

This means that the satellite gap is back. Either these geniuses get another bird up there before USA 116 or USA 129 craps out, or we start to face gaps in coverage.

The Problem With Satellites

Keefe has some great insights on the bureaucratic implications of Misty’s demise, but I think he is too sanguine about the state of our fleet of optical and radar imaging birds. With “over a hundred military and intelligence satellites in orbit,” Keefe, “it’s a safe guess that anything the Iranians or North Koreans do above ground on a sunny day is something they want us to see …”

That’s arguably true now (though I’d take the other side), but given the small number of optical and radar imaging satellites, one does have to worry about gaps opening up:

Common Name Official Name Int’l Name NORAD desig. Launched (date) Perigee (km) Apogee (km) Incl. (deg.)
Improved Crystal 2 USA 116 1995-066A 23728 5 Dec 95 406 803 97.8
Improved Crystal 3 USA 129 1996-072A 24680 20 Dec 96 279 1016 98.0
Improved Crystal 4 USA 161 2001-044A 26934 5 Oct 01 398 896 97.9
Improved Crystal 5 USA 186 2005-042A 28888 19 Oct 05 264 1050 97.9
Lacrosse/Onyx 2 USA 69 1991-017A 21147 8 Mar 91 639 646 68.0
Lacrosse/Onyx 3 USA 133 1997-064A 25017 24 Oct 97 654 660 57.0
Lacrosse/Onyx 4 USA 152 2000-047A 26473 17 Aug 00 674 682 68.0
Lacrosse/Onyx 5 USA 182 2005-016A 28646 30 Apr 05 712 718 57.0

(I updated this table by John Pike and Ted Molczan.)

These satellites fly in predictable orbits, which allow states like Iran or North Korea to stop or disguise their activities when our birds are overhead.

For some sense of how easy that is, check out this description of the operational patterns by Aviation Week’s Craig Covault from May 2006:

The KH-11s … pass over Iranian nuclear facilities eight times every 24 hr. Two of them overfly Iranian facilities within an hour of each other around 10 a.m. local time, followed by two others within about an hour of 1 p.m. local time. These overflights are timed to Sun angles.

Two of the optical spacecraft then overfly the Iranian sites again in the 8:30-10:30 p.m. timeframe and twice again in the 11:30p.m. to 1:30 a.m. period local time, when the infrared sensors are more useful.

Covault doesn’t cite US officials for this information. My guess is that either he, or someone like Ted Molczan—who Covault interviewed for the story—simply derived that description from open source orbital element sets or ELSETS.

As a proof of principle—and because Sunday is my day to just wonk out—I grabbed ELSETS for the KH-11 satellites posted on the Visual Satellite Observer’s Home Page in Spring 2006, plugged them into WinOrbit, and double-checked Covault’s description.

The table below shows the four KH-11 or Lacrosse/Onyx satellites, the date of the ELSET and the local time of the next two passes over Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Satellite ELSET date First Pass Second Pass
USA 116 18 May 2006 2:252 pm 1:37 am
USA 129 21 June 2006 10:41 am 9:37 pm
USA 161 27 March 2006 1:23 pm 12:15 am
USA 186 22 June 2006 9:58 am 8:53 pm

Of course, these times are really just illustrative—it would have been nice to have data from the same day because the precise time of the pass will vary depending on station-keeping, meteorological events and small movements in the orbits of the satellites. For example, the satellite observation community lost, then found, USA 161 more than one hour late on the previous ELSET.

But, overall, if we take these times as typical of the operational patterns of US satellites in Spring 2006, we see very good agreement with the description by Covault.

  • A pair of passes at 9:58 and 10:41 am—“within an hour of each other around 10 a.m.”
  • A pair of passes at 1:23 pm and 2:52 pm—“within about an hour of 1 p.m. local time”[1].
  • A pair of passes at 8:53 and 9:37—“in the 8:30-10:30 p.m. timeframe.”
  • A final pair of passes at 12:14 and 1:37 am—“in the 11:30p.m. to 1:30 a.m. period.”

If I can do this over the course of an afternoon, you can be the Iranians can, and do. (The Indians did it when they successfully avoided detection of preparations for their 1998 nuclear test.)

So, What?

Satellites have draw-backs: They are predictable, vulnerable to denial and deception practices and still can’t see inside buildings.

If we could develop a stealthy satellite, then we should consider it. It’s always nice to be able to alter your orbit to be able to drop in to say “hello” at an unexpected time.

But that is a pretty limited trick, one that probably isn’t worth breaking the bank. Misty seems to have failed this test by offering a pretty modest capability at an exorbitant, still increasing, price. Good on McConnell for killing it. Let’s hope that FIA gets back on track with a nice, modest program that can simply maintain current capabilities with no gaps. Nothing fancy, just something that works.

Other methods, including stealthy UAVs or, yes, arms control agreements that provide for data exchanges, environmental monitoring and surprise on-site inspections also play an important role in keeping the IC up-to-date. Moreover agreements, like START (_ahem_) can be written to include cooperation measures that ease the task of satellites, either by preventing interference or requiring that certain activities occur in the open.

1 This is a judgement call—USA 116 could view Iranian nuclear sites on consecutive passes at 1:15 pm and 2:52 pm, although the second pass was much closer to being overhead.


  1. Nicholas Weaver (History)

    One comment, I’m not sure if it is possible to build a stealth sattelite…

    I can’t see one being able to handle the thermal cycling without making the sattelite highly reflective so it does’t cook in the sun and freeze in the shade, and the glinting sunlight is how they get spotted.

    Perhaps a better solution is a “low capability” (eg 1-2m resolution) but small and cheap sattelite design and throw up a bunch.

    If the cheap sattelites can still image vehicles etc, it would really complicate the “avoid the sattelites when they are overhead” strategy.

  2. asdf (History)

    > plugged them into WinOrbit

    Yeah, if you want that windows 3.0 retro feel! Any modern nuclear wannabe government, terrorist camp groundskeeper or weather satellite receiver geek relies on wxtrack . list plenty of alternatives . Especially for the *nix crowd.

    Of course simply dropping by at gives you the predictions without installing any software.

    Just pick a sat. I limited the list to the ones with a USA-something name, this excludes the commercial ones and those of say China, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, the UK and Russia.

    You can see how bright these big shiny things are or get a list of passes . IIRC these are only the passes where the satellite is lit by the sun, but the observer, I punched in the coordinates of Esfahan, isn`t. This makes these passes ideal for humans seeing the sat, not the other way around.

    And you can look at the passes and orbits graphically .

    So figuring out where the spysats are isn`t rocket science. I also think it can`t be that hard to catch a radar beam strong enough to create high resolution images.

    That said if you look at the couple hundred million dollar sats everyone but the US is launching and the fact that commercial planes get to fly everywhere these days. (If you stick in camera`s and radio`s instead of cargo and people, who is gonna know?) Then why go for a billion dollars when you can go for a million camera`s cheaper?

    Also, at a billion dollars I bet you can get an Iranian kid to ride over to an enrichment plant with a bike and a camera. (I bet halliburton will disguise a camera as a phone for only half that money!)

  3. Captain_Canuck

    > Other methods, including stealthy UAVs

    Yes, the ‘temporal limitations’ of satellite recon are well understood.

    As evidence that the US has not put all of its IMINT eggs in the FIA basket, I submit the new construction underway at Groom Lake:

  4. Allen Thomson

    > I can’t see one being able to handle the thermal cycling without making the satellite highly reflective so it does’t cook in the sun and freeze in the shade, and the glinting sunlight is how they get spotted.

    But if what the reflective surface is reflecting is black space instead of sunlight, the satellite looks black. It’s hard to get stealthier than a well-managed mirror.

    Allow me to point to

  5. Allen Thomson

    Oh, and I am also completely amazed that people are not running around trying to find out whether the line is true that said:

    ”…currently there is no long-term program in place for supplying the electro-optical imagery upon which the U.S. national security community so heavily relies, sources said.”

    And, if it is, why pyramids of skulls aren’t being built at Chantilly.

  6. Andy (History)

    I have to agree with Nicholas that the better and cheaper option is more satellites to provide near-continuous coverage. The added benefit is redundancy in the unlikely event China starts shooting them down.

    Of course “cheap” is officially banned at the NRO – a so-called “intelligence” agency that does not actually produce any intelligence. NRO never chooses less advanced, technical or less expensive options to provide an intelligence capability – doing so would reduce the only real measure of bureaucratic power and influence they have – their budget. NRO has no incentive to choose a less costly option that would provide the same or similar benefit.

    Instead of a fleet of cheaper, and perhaps less-advanced imaging satellites, the NRO sold Congress on the Misty boondoggle and we’re now faced with the possibility of less space imaging in the future, not more.

    As a former intelligence professional I would like to see the NRO go away altogether and put satellite procurement where it belongs – with the agencies that actually use satellite intelligence (primarily NGA and NSA). I know I’m not alone in this view (read “Fixing Intelligence” by former head of NSA, LTG Odom, for instance), but the NRO has more friends in Congress than a mere mortal such as myself or even a retired General.

    As an addendum, the UAV’s and other air breathing platforms others have mentioned here cannot easily gain access to targets of interest, stay hidden for long periods and provide plausible deniability. Nations still own their own airspace, after all. So any decision to violate that airspace would have political implications that may limit UAV use by policymakers.