Little Interest in Falklands WarThe response of Soviet satellites to the two major world crises that erupted in 1982 was enlightening. Despite a plethora of media reports to the contrary, the Soviets showed little overt interest in the conduct of the Falkland Islands war. None of the high-resolution photographic satellites in orbit during the conflict exhibited orbital parameters that would indicate dedicated surveillance of the South Atlantic. Specifically, none of these satellites was placed in ground-stabilized orbits that regularly traversed the Falklands, nor were their points of perigee shifted to the southern latitudes to improve the resolution of potential observations.
There are probably two reasons for the apparent lack of Soviet interest. First, until the final stages of the war, the Argentines, whom the Soviets were reportedly helping, held the Falklands and were in no need of the type of intelligence for which Soviet photographic satellites are best suited. Secondly, the weather conditions in the region were for the most part unfavorable, reducing the probability of successful reconnaissance. Most of the other Soviet satellites launched during the war—navigation, communications, worldwide ELINT, early warning, and radar calibration missions—were normal replacements for older satellites.
One important incident early in the war may have involved a Soviet satellite. A few hours before an Argentine air-launched Exocet missile mortally wounded the HMS Sheffield, Kosmos-1355 flew directly over the Falklands and then continued north toward Soviet territory. Circumstantially, Kosmos-1355 appears to have been capable of detecting the task force that the Sheffield was trying to protect. One reputable report hinted that an Argentine SP-2H Neptune patrol plane was actually responsible for directing the Super Etendard fighter that fired the deadly missile. Unfortunately for the Sheffield, she was standing picket duty for the beams to detect approaching enemy aircraft. The potential data from Kosmos-1355 would have been in all probability superfluous, since the Neptune aircraft already knew or could have guessed from a wide variety of sources the general location of the Sheffield and her sister ships.
Eye on the Middle EastMore obvious were Soviet observations of the Lebanon war in June and July. Kosmos-1370—one of the new generation of long-duration Soviet reconnaissance satellites—was already circling the earth when the Israeli army crossed into Lebanon on June 6. Two days later the satellite had maneuvered into a position to view the escalating engagements. Kosmos-1370 maintained its daily patrol over the region until June 12, when it was relieved by Kosmos-1377 (launched June 8).
When Iraq launched a new offensive against Iranian territory on November 1, Soviet spy satellites were quickly diverted to the region. Kosmos-1419 maneuvered on November 1, Soviet spy satellites were quickly diverted to the region. Kosmos-1419 maneuvered on November 5 to retard its drift across the battlefield and to permit observation opportunities on the next two days. After resuming its global surveillance mission, Kosmo-1419 returned to the area on November 13; this time the spacecraft maneuvered into a stabilized ground track and made identical passes over the region for three consecutive days. Kosmos-1419 was then recovered on November 16. Kosmos-1421 also exhibited behavior conducive to surveillance of the Persian Gulf.
The significance of the ASAT test, which was almost identical to the two tests performed in 1981, was its relation to the strategic weapons simulation and the other space activity being conducted simultaneously. A little more than three hours elapsed from the launch of Kosmos-1379 until its interception of Kosmos-1375. During this time two other satellites were launched: One a navigation satellite from Plesetsk (Kosmos-1380), and a medium-resolution photographic satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (Kosmos-1381). There had never before been a space launch from any Soviet facility during the course of an ASAT test, let alone two. The two satellite launchings may well have imitated the orbiting of replacement satellites for residents destroyed by the US during the wartime scenario. (In a footnote to the navigation satellite replacement, the second stage of the launch vehicle shut down prematurely. None days later Kosmos-1380 was incinerated as it fell back to earth.)
Surveillance of US OperationsUnexpectedly, the Soviets have shown a keen interest in space-based surveillance of Space Shuttle landings. Fourteen hours after the liftoff of STS-1 in April 1981, Kosmos-1262, a week-old high-resolution reconnaissance satellite, maneuvered into a new orbit with a lower average altitude. As a result, Kosmos-1262 flew directly over the STS-1 California landing site at an altitude of about 220 km less than ten minutes before STS-1 touched down.
Soviet intentions regarding STS-3 in March 1982 were seemingly transparent. STS-3 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on March 22 with a scheduled touchdown at White Sands, N.M., for March 29. In the very early morning hours of March 25, Kosmos-1343, another Soviet high-resolution photographic satellite, maneuvered into a slightly higher orbit. Consequently, on March 29 Kosmos-1343 passed over White Sands just fifteen minutes before the planned landing of STS-3. However, because of excessive winds, STS-3 was commanded to delay reentry until the next day.
First, the ground track of Kosmos-1343 on March 30 was shifted back to the east, where the satellite passed close to White Sands at an altitude of 230 km about forty minutes before the safe landing of STS-3. The reason why the Soviets would want to photograph the landing sites so soon to recover is not entirely clear, but the orbits of Kosmos-1262 and Kosmos-1343 appear to be more than coincidental. Although all landings have been open to the public and media coverage has been extensive, a possible explanation for the Soviet actions is a desire to get a satellite’s view of the site for reference in assessing potential future landing fields.
Even more intriguing was the recovery of Kosmos-1343 in the Soviet Union within three hours of its passage over the California desert. Hence, the Soviets could test the swiftness of their photographic intelligence teams under a mock tactical situation. The apparent ability of the Soviets to overcome unexpected obstacles—i.e., the delayed STS-3 landing—in real time and still meet other objectives attests to a substantial maturity in the Soviet system.
In retrospect, Kosmos-1374 seems to have been in the 1,000-kg class, obviously not capable of ferrying cosmonauts but possibly a subscale model of a larger design. Kosmos-1374 was successfully recovered in the Indian Ocean by a Soviet naval task force after slightly more than one orbit about the earth. The nature of the mission was reminiscent of American tests performed in the 1960s. The inference is that the Soviet reusable spacecraft program, much debated in the West, is still far from operational flights.
In a related project, the Soviet Union announced that development work continues on the long-delayed Geostationary Operational Meteorological Satellite (GOMS). Consideration is also being given to placing weather satellites in polar orbits with twenty-four-hour periods to observe better the extreme northern and southern latitudes.
Navigation and Early Warning SatellitesImprovements in the Soviet navigation network were also revealed. Kosmos-1383, the first Soviet navigation satellite to carry the new COSPAR search and rescue equipment, was instrumental in locating quickly the survivors of a downed aircraft in Canada and aided in several other rescues by the end of the year. An application filed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) disclosed that the Soviet Union will soon deploy a new generation of navigation satellites. Although designated GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System), a more appropriate name might be NAVSTARsky since the satellite will not only possess orbital parameters virtually identical to the present American NAVSTAR spacecraft, but will also transmit on nearly the same frequencies! A test launch of three satellites into this new orbital regime on October 12 appeared to be a partial failure.
Despite their absence during the first part of the Falkland Islands war, Soviet ocean surveillance satellites experienced another record-breaking year with seven successful launches—four of the nuclear-powered radar class and three of the conventionally powered passive ELINT variety. A familiar sure of activity was again detected in late summer and early fall, when both NATO and Warsaw Pact maneuvers were under way. During this period (for the very first time in the history of the program) the Soviets had a pair of each type of satellite operational simultaneously. Unfortunately, one of the radar satellites (Kosmos-1402) launched at this time failed to maneuver its radioactive power supply to a higher storage orbit after its mission was terminated on December 28. Consequently, the nuclear payload began a gradual descent toward reentry in late January 1983.
During 1982, the Soviets continued unabated their formidable earth satellite programs, conducting more than five times as many launchings as the US. Significant improvement of the operational utility of all space systems remains the dominant theme of Soviet activity. Moreover, there is no evidence that this trend—with its obvious implications for American national defense—will change in the foreseeable future.
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