Space: China Joins The Club


August 29, 2018: At the end of July China put a new type of photo satellite into orbit; the Gaofen 11 optical remote-sensing satellite. This one has a claimed resolution of 10cm (able to capture objects on the surface that are less than four inches wide). Previously only American photo satellites had that degree of resolution. Current American photo satellites have a resolution of about 2 cm (less than an inch). Meanwhile, the Americans have four improved KH-11 (sometimes called KH-12s) satellites in orbit, the last of these launched in 2013. The first of new KH-11s (sometimes called KH-13s) is to be launched before the end of 2018 and, like the KH-12s, will cost over $4 billion each.

China describes its Gaofen photo satellites as being put into orbit for largely non-military uses and to reduce Chinese dependence on commercial photo satellites. That is largely true but what makes a photo satellite a military grade photo reconnaissance satellite are a lot of additional features that rarely make it into official press releases. Since these satellites can be seen (in great detail) and photographed from the ground it is easy enough to judge the exact purpose of photo satellites. The latest Geofens look a lot like American KH-11s put into service during the 1990s and has a mirror (lens) diameter of 1.7 meters. The four American currently KH-11s in orbit have 2.4 meter mirror diameter. That’s the same size as the mirror in the Hubble space telescope, which was turned on distant galaxies rather than the earth surface.

In other respect, the Chinese were correct in saying they wanted to reduce their dependence on commercial photo satellites. In 2015 the American NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) recently admitted what everyone already suspected, that it gets most of its satellite photos from commercial satellites. This was no secret inside the military. That’s because, since the late 1990s, when commercial photo satellites began to show up, military users were quick to buy and use this unclassified data. The commercial photo satellites gradually caught up with their military counterparts (which first appeared in the 1960s) and got even more business from the military. What really got this movement going was the 2005 appearance of Google Earth ( This easy-to-use web-based app revolutionized military intelligence. The military didn't like to admit it at first. But Google Earth putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy-to-use fashion, also made much more information available to military professionals (and terrorists, and criminals and academics as well). All of these military users quickly appreciated what a splendid new tool they had.

To the U.S. Department of Defense, Google Earth's major problem was not the ease-of-use, but the manner in which it showcased the shortcomings of the NGA, which was responsible for taking the satellite photos, spiffing them up as needed, and getting them to the troops. Trouble is, the stuff still wasn't getting to the troops that needed it when they needed it. This was made very obvious when Google Earth showed up and demonstrated how you can get satellite images to anyone, when they need them and do it with minimal hassle.

The NGA and other government agencies liked to keep all satellite (and aerial) in classified archives, just in case they contained some secrets a potential enemy could use. Google Earth did great damage to this attitude. Changing minds in the military intelligence community isn’t easy. The restricted access to satellite photos is an old problem. Since the 1980s (when lots more satellite images became available, often on very short notice) generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery" have been complaining about the difficulty they had in getting their hands on this stuff or passing it on to the officers and troops who need it most.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on photo satellites since the 1960s, and the troops always seemed to get leftovers, if anything and usually too late to be of any use. Yet the satellite people regularly conned Congress out of more money so they could build more satellites and neat systems that would get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods never arrived, or never arrived in time. Generals gave angry testimony before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 Kuwait War. The satellite people seemed contrite and said they would make it right. If given the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing.

Then the troops got access to Google Earth in 2005 and saw firsthand what they have been missing. To make matters worse the software Google Earth uses to get the job done was first developed for the NGA. But the way the NGA operates you had to worry about security considerations and all manner of bureaucratic details before you could deploy a useful tool so they really couldn’t use the Google interface on a wide scale. Mention that the troops in question are fighting a war and the NGA will point out that you still have to deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight.

Soon after 2005, the troops were beating NGA over the head with Google Earth and Congress took notice. However, NGA bureaucrats were close at hand and the angry troops are far away. Progress was still slow. But at least the troops had Google Earth. Unfortunately, so does the enemy. Nevertheless, over the next decade, the army was able to go directly to commercial satellite photo providers who, every year, were putting up more capable photo satellites. Many of the photos from these new satellites were higher resolution and not available on Google Earth. But the army could afford to buy them (as could other commercial customers) and give the troops instant access because all these commercial satellite photos were unclassified.

After a while, NGA stopped pouting and got on board with the use of lots of unclassified satellite photos. This also spurred the NGA to make the high quality (high resolution and with other enhancements) spy satellite photos more easily available to the troops, or at least the army intel and planning specialists who worked out the details of how battles would be fought. This led to other intel agencies making their data (especially from electronic data collection satellites) available quickly (often in real time) to the troops who needed it.

While Google Earth opened the floodgates and gave the troops instant access, what happened first was the availability of high-resolution satellite photos that could be of use to combat forces. This began in the 1960s with the first appearance of the KH (Key Hole) series of photo satellites. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959 but the first successful one was in 1960. Thus until the 1970s the film-using satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations. The KH 1 through 9 series satellites sent the film back in canisters (for high-resolution pictures), to be developed. The Keyhole 9, the first of which went up in 1971, was not only the last of the film satellites but the largest and most capable. Its basic design was used by the subsequent digital camera birds. The KH 9 could cover large areas at high (for the time) resolution of .6 meters (24 inches). This was more than adequate to spot and count tanks, aircraft, and even small warships. The 19th, and last, KH 9 went up in 1984. The KH-9 was a 13 ton satellite with multiple cameras and 4 or 5 reentry vehicles for returning the film for developing and analysis. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird.

The age of film began to fade when the first digital satellite, the KH 11, was launched in 1976. These birds were large, nearly 15 tons, and the digital cameras could obtain better resolution and broadcast the photos back to earth. The resolution was such that objects 70mm (a few inches) in size could be identified from 200 kilometers. Digital cameras were more flexible than film and eventually surpassed film in all categories. The KH-11 telescopic cameras operated like a high-resolution TV camera. Images were captured continuously and transmitted to earth stations. Computers were used to finish the process and produce photos identical to those taken by a conventional film camera. You could even have motion pictures, as well as indications of heat and the nature of the various items. KH-11 could often tell what kind of metal an object on the ground was made of.

All this did not come cheap. These birds cost over $400 million each and lasted three or four years, depending on fuel usage. Moreover, you needed two of them up at the same time in order to guarantee coverage and save the birds from having to change orbit too frequently. The most recent KH-11, the 15th, was launched in 2013. There have been at least four models of the KH-11 since the first of five "Block 1s" was launched in 1976. Since the 1960s over a hundred KH series satellites have been launched. The Big Bird film using KH-9s didn’t last long because once their film supply was gone they were useless.

The next generation of digital satellites, the KH-12 (officially “improved KH-11”), was supposed to have been launched in 1987. But because of problems with the space shuttle (one had exploded during launch), only a belated KH-11 was launched in October 1987. The KH-12 was delayed, even though it had several advantages over the KH-11. Along with improvements in ground data processing equipment, the KH-12 could send back data in real time. You could watch events on a large, high-resolution screen as they were happening. This would also allow military headquarters and other users to get their satellite information directly, without going through a CIA or NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) processing center. Data from the more esoteric sensors would still have to be studied by the specialists elsewhere. The KH-12 was expected to make users even more enthusiastic about satellite reconnaissance. It did, in the form of a much upgraded KH-11. Actually, these birds were called KH-12s but are still officially known as KH-11 and still are. That is something of a tribute to the capability and flexibility of the original KH-11 design, the first of which went into orbit during 1976.

The flood of photographic and electronic data was growing far larger than the force of analysts available to make something of it. In addition to the KH series birds, there were radar and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) satellites constantly broadcasting data. Then there are the Defense Support Program satellites, which use heat sensors to locate the hot plumes of missile launches. So although no new KH-11s have been launched since 2013 there have been plenty of new spy satellites put into orbit, especially radar satellites for monitoring the earths surface in any kind of weather.

There still isn't a real KH-12 (a new design), and that's partly because commercial photo satellites have become cheaper and more convenient for military use. Many KH-12 features were simply added to subsequent KH-11 models. This was cheaper than building the new KH-12 design and involved less paperwork. Thus, those in charge of American space operations are asking that less money be spent on developing new satellites and more spent on building up a reserve of GPS and communications satellites that can quickly be launched to replace wartime losses. The Department of Defense has already been buying more commercial satellites, rather than much more expensive, usually late, and sometimes canceled, custom designed military birds. Contributing to this change were bumbling bureaucrats who mismanaged development projects and journalists who headlined the failures.

In 2007 the Department of Defense agreed to spend $10 billion to build two military-grade photo-satellites, similar to the ones already in orbit, plus two commercial grade photo satellites. This uncharacteristically prudent behavior was forced on them by Congress. The politicians were angry over the failure of the Department of Defense to design and build a new generation of military photo satellites. For example, in 2005 the U.S. canceled the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) system. This disaster cost the government more than $10 billion when a poorly conceived and run effort to create a more powerful new generation of intelligence satellites failed. Instead of FIA, the two existing military photo satellites were simply replaced with similar designs. In addition, the Pentagon bought two commercial photo satellites, for about $850 million each, to replace what the Department of Defense is currently spending on photos from commercial photo satellite companies. The two commercial birds, which were owned by the Department of Defense.

The FIA (Future Imagery Architecture) system was to be a new generation of smaller and more numerous spy satellites that would provide more coverage of targets down below and, because of the larger number of satellites, a more difficult target for anyone seeking to destroy the U.S. spy satellite capability. The KH series birds were to retire in 2005, replaced by FIA satellites. The project, begun in 1998, was poorly designed and managed. In retrospect, it was doomed from the start because of a lack of technical talent on the government side and the selection of the low bidder (Boeing) that lacked the experience and capabilities to carry out a job like this. When FIA was canceled in 2005 work continued on individual new satellites. One of the FIA designs, the Topaz radar satellite managed to see two in orbit by the end of 2013. The KH birds are not going to retire by the end of the decade, having been extended by the continued use of the KH-12. This is not a new design but a much improved and upgraded KH-11. The KH-12 always existed as a nickname for the latest version of the KH-11.

It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can provide. The government also wants to ensure secrets are kept by having complete control over at least a pair of commercial grade satellites.

The two new government-owned commercial birds took over the task of tracking troop movements, bases, and military operations in general. The two new high resolution, military grade, spy satellites were improved versions of existing ones. These are used to get detailed (able to detect something smaller than an inch) photos of something the commercial grade images (able to detect something 30-45 cm/12-18 inches in size) found interesting.

The troops and military planners are also big users of Google Earth, which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military, commercial grade, photo satellites eliminated the potential for information leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more capacity to do low-resolution jobs.

The people who run the military satellite system are increasingly concerned with wartime needs, and that is what brought out the request for spare GPS and communications satellites. These are relatively cheap, compared to the spy satellites, and most needed if a future war spreads to the orbital zone and puts some American birds out of action. There is also growing concern about the debris in orbit and the increasing risk of satellites being damaged, or destroyed, by these small fragments of older satellites and the rockets that put them there. China and Russia are paying a lot more attention to techniques for destroying satellites and the most likely targets are all American.




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