The Coldest Warriors
Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn't exist.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 4 of 7)
A few months before Wheelon’s football revelation, the Air Force tried to leapfrog the CIA by sending up Gambit, an advanced bucket-dropper like Corona but with outstanding resolution on the order of 18 inches. Kennan, the CIA’s entry, had that kind of resolution and better, but it also had the tremendous benefit of sending imagery right away. Kennan therefore threatened Gambit, and that set off yet another bruising conflict. The Air Force reacted by trying to orbit Frog (for “Film Readout Gambit”). The idea was to scan Gambit imagery with an older vacuum tube video camera, but transmission from orbit was notoriously poor, which is why Kennan used CCDs.
Frog also had to fly low to get the clearest possible pictures of the target, but that made it more difficult to maintain line-of-sight radio contact with its receiving station. The spacecraft could operate only a few hundred miles inside the Soviet Union, and receivers to collect its imagery would have to be set up like a fence of antennas encircling the Iron Curtain. The advantage of using satellites instead of airplanes to get deep, complete coverage would be lost. The myopic Frog soon croaked.
The Air Force didn’t have a monopoly on harebrained ideas, however. The CIA decided that the ultimate spy satellite should be able to do everything. It therefore invented one that combined imaging, including infrared, and signals intercept capability in a single colossally large and horrendously expensive vehicle. Even before it was killed on the drawing board, its many detractors contemptuously dubbed it “Battlestar Galactica.”
Alexander H. Flax, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development, succeeded McMillan as the NRO’s third director on October 1, 1965, and stayed until March 1969. Flax concluded that the only way to get real-time imagery from deep in the heart of Russia was to beam it up to a second satellite, which would relay the pictures to Earth. A look at a globe of the world showed that the only feasible way to send imagery from the Soviet Union to the United States was by using a relay satellite in an elliptical orbit thousands of miles above the top of the planet, giving it 12 hours or more of “hang time” to collect the imagery and forward it home. This was done by a spacecraft known as SDS, for Satellite Data System, which was developed in close conjunction with Kennan to form a compatible team.
Another brilliant development during the 1960s was Rhyolite, a satellite designed to listen to telemetry coming from Soviet rockets and ballistic missiles as they lifted off their launch pads. Telemetry at launch—information about fuel flow, exhaust pressure, turbopump operation, guidance systems, and other vital signs radioed to the engineers—provides a complete picture of the missile’s performance.
The CIA needed to intercept the telemetry just before and during liftoff. The solution was to park a satellite with a huge antenna over the launch site and eavesdrop on the telemetry, soaking it up on recorders like a mechanical sponge. The best place to do that was at geosynchronous altitude, roughly 22,300 miles up, where the satellite would remain parked over the same spot. But capturing a signal from so great a distance required a huge bowl-shaped antenna. That created another problem: how to get the thing into a launch vehicle’s small upper stage. A contractor solved the problem by folding the antenna like a sophisticated parasol. Rhyolite was built by TRW and first launched in 1970. It was sensationally effective at listening to missile launch telemetry and monitoring thousands of radio conversations simultaneously.
While the rivalries of the early ’60s resulted in solutions that were often brilliant, by 1965 the atmosphere within the NRO and the relationship between Defense and the CIA had deteriorated so badly that McNamara and McCone finally agreed to establish a National Reconnaissance Executive Committee chaired by the director of central intelligence and reporting to the secretary of defense on the NRO’s research, development, and budget. If the DCI disagreed with the secretary of defense, he could take the matter to the president. At the same time, McNamara and McCone accepted three written peace agreements as well as “monitors” from each camp to make sure the terms of the agreements were being met. That helped ease the tension. So did Al Flax, who firmly believed that the Air Force and CIA were complementary assets. He too tried hard to reconcile their differences.
A final agreement was signed on August 11, 1965, by Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance and Admiral William F. Raborn, the new director of central intelligence. It established the NRO as a separate agency within the Department of Defense. Significantly, it also substantially reduced its director’s authority and made the CIA responsible for establishing intelligence collection requirements and priorities. The CIA had won.