Cold Fronts

by Jack Sharp

Chapter 9: Defense Military Satellite Program


The high ground revisited

Before proceeding with an account of my assignment at AFGWC I must first describe AWS’s Defense Military Satellite System (DMSP) and then trace the evolution of AFGWC before my arrival. This background will help you to better understand the work I did at Global. First the DMSP.

The concept of high ground soared to new heights with the advent of satellites that now made it possible to simultaneously watch both the weather and the activities of potential enemies from outer space. As I earlier stated, “From earliest times the military intelligence gathering advantage of high ground has been self-evident.”

Although I was not involved in the project directly, DMSP played such an important part in Global’s classified missions that a description here will provide a background for better understanding of what went on behind the Green Door (literally) that sealed off Global’s Special Projects Division’s work space from the rest of the organization.


Weather satellites: the beginning

Tiros I, the world’s first weather satellite, was launched on 1 April 1960. Commander of AWS General Norman L. Peterson saw the value of this new tool and lobbied the Air Force unsuccessfully to launch their own bird; it was hoped that a joint effort between the Weather Bureau and AWS would meet Air Force’s needs. Meanwhile, in an effort to ease tensions between East and West, newly elected President Kennedy proposed that Russia and the United States develop peaceful uses for both of our space programs. Fuller writes that Kennedy, “in his first State of the Union address in January, 1961, sowed the seeds for a cooperative weather prediction program with Russia.” In March 1962 Kennedy made a specific proposal to Nikita Khrushchev that read in part:


  • “Perhaps we could render no greater service to mankind through our space programs than by the joint establishment of an early operational weather satellite system. Such a system would be designed to provide global weather data for prompt use by any nation. To initiate this service, I propose that the United States and the Soviet Union each launch a satellite to photograph cloud cover and provide other agreed meteorological services for all nations. The two satellites would be placed in near-polar orbit in planes approximately perpendicular to each other, thus providing regular coverage of all areas. This immensely valuable data would then be disseminated through normal international meteorological channels and would make a significant contribution to the research and service programs now under study by the World Meteorological Organization.”
  • By 1964 President Johnson was able to make an agreement with Russia for the “exchange on a reciprocal basis of weather information gathered by satellites.”

    During the four intervening years between the launch of Tiros I and Johnson’s agreement for the “peaceful use of space,” the Weather Bureau and NASA were not able to agree on specification for a system that would satisfy both the meteorological community and NASA’s space engineers. Tired of waiting for the National Weather service and NASA to agree, the Department of Defense finally gave the money to Air Force to begin a weather satellite program of their own, justified by AWS’s support of supersecret “special strategic programs”. The first DMSP bird was launched sometime in 1966. A description of how this new technology helped AWS greatly improve the service it provided to its customers, both classified and unclassified, will be included in later chapters.


    A deliberate breach

    The DMSP program was a deliberate breach of both President Kennedy and Johnson’s earlier outreach for the peaceful uses of space. DMSP was too successful in its support of our nation’s intelligence community’s spy satellite program and other “special strategic programs” to reveal its existence and share its imagery. Such are the exigencies of war, Cold Wars included.

    From the launch of the first Air Force weather satellite in 1965 until early 1973 – one year before my retirement – the DMSP was classified TOP SECRET-CODEWORD (No foreigners). In late 1972 at the urging of the Secretaries of Defense and the Air Force, General Jack Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, finally ordered the program declassified, and in March, 1973, Under Secretary of the Air Force John L. McLucas revealed to the public that the Air Force had been operating its own weather satellite system for some time.

    While this program was still classified, it was known by a TOP SECRET CODEWORD. As soon as the decision to declassify was made, it was necessary that it be given a new, unclassified name. Cas Mendez-Vigo tells me that his suggestion prevailed. His suggestion, DMSP, marked it as a Defense Department developed system, and this was important, because of increased pressure from sources outside the DoD to merge the civilian and military weather satellite systems. To avoid confusion, I will use its unclassified name, DMSP, whether or not the system was classified or not during the times I refer to.

    It took twenty-two more years and the end of the Cold War before one of DMSP’s most important “special strategic program” applications was also declassified. On 24 February 1995 the following Reuter news release appeared on the Internet:


  • “LANGLEY, Va. (Reuter) – The United States Friday began releasing once-supersecret Cold War spy satellite photographs in a move long sought by historians, scientists and environmentalists.

    Within hours of the first release of such intelligence imagery, the government put the first four declassified pictures on the global Internet.

    Under an executive order signed by President Clinton, about 886,000 satellite images are to be made public in batches over the next 18 months through the National Archives and the U.S. Geological Survey.

    The pictures were collected by the first generation of photo-reconnaissance satellites from their advent in August 1960 through May 1972, when more advanced systems took over.

    The first four spy photographs to be declassified, all of sites in the former Soviet Union, were placed on the Internet by the Geological Survey.

    Included was the maiden image of the so-called Corona series of spy satellites – a fuzzy shot of a military airfield in northeastern Russia snapped on August 18, 1960.

    Vice President Al Gore, who began pressing for scientific assess to non-sensitive intelligence data when he was in the Senate, termed the material a “gold mine.”

    “Today we have turned swords of Cold War-era intelligence gathering into plowshares of information that will help us to better understand and analyze our global environment,” Gore said at a ceremony marking the event at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.

    The collection being made public includes 2.1 million feet of film in 39,000 cans. The early satellites parachuted their film to Earth, rather than beaming the images, as is now done.

    The reconnaissance pictures, taken methodically to monitor arms developments and produce maps, will help establish a baseline in the 1960’s for measuring such changes as global warming, desertification and forest shrinkage.”

  • This item was good news for me, for until DMSP and Corona were both declassified, anyone even remotely connected to these systems were sworn to secrecy and I was now free to describe their connection.


    A sunsynchronous, near-Polar orbit

    “Positioned in sunsynchronous, near-polar orbits, DMSP birds offered pictures with nearly twice the clarity than similar imagery from civil satellites because, at their 450-mile altitudes, they were about half as far from earth as their civilian cousins. But DMSP satellites also had better sensors: an infrared capability, superior processing equipment, more favorable orbital characteristics, and more accurate data location (gridding). In fact, a major part of the genius of DMSP, for field operations such as Vietnam, was that it provided the ground receiving system a completely located and rectified image, with latitude, longitude and geography overlaid. In short, DMSP was designed to support military requirements. For the first time in the history of warfare, pictures from satellites gave decision makers a look from space at the prevailing weather over hostile areas – areas where conventional sources of weather data were often shut off.” For a quasi-technical description of what sunsynchronous means, the reader can refer to Technical Note 5, Appendix A.

    According to Art Gulliver, “Probably the greatest advantage of DMSP over the civilian satellites was its ability to obtain the same high resolution pictures at the edges of the scan as it did in the center. This was done by a “pendulum” technique which slowed the movement of the scanning camera at the outer edges with appropriate changes to the optical system.” Art adds that the National Environmental Satellite System, our civilian counterpart, was offered this capability for their weather satellites, but said they weren’t interested.

    By 1970, DMSP satellite imagery was an integral part of Global’s data base, and, since processing data streams from weather satellites is not unlike drinking from a fire hose, it was necessary that a dedicated single-purpose computer be designed and built to preprocess streams of data spewing forth from these birds before this virtual flood of information could be allowed to enter Global’s 1108s. AFGWC’s “special strategic program” customers footed the bill to fund such a computer. Art Gulliver says that a contract was awarded to a small Florida electronics company, Radiation Inc., to develop the communications and data processing equipment for DMSP and that a larger company, Harris Corporation, eventually bought-out Radiation.

    Data was transmitted from the satellites to one of two receiving stations located in Maine and Washington state, and from there was relayed to a hush-hush organization at Offutt AFB, the 1000th Support Group whose sole mission was to manage the signal received from the spacecraft until it was delivered into the hands of the “user” – Global. The 1000th was located on the floor directly below AFGWC in Building D. Circuits connecting the two computer systems were, therefore, only a few feet long. The operational connection between the two organizations remained TOP SECRET until the DMSP program was declassified.


    Big Jimbo

    Jim Kennedy stood head and shoulders above most of us, literally and figuratively. Standing six-feet four-inches tall, Jim possesses an intellect to match his height. In the early 1960s Kennedy earned masters degrees at MIT in both Meteorology and Astronautics.

    During his career, Jim Kennedy became intimately involved with DMSP and made a significant contribution to the system during a tour in Vietnam from June 1966 to June 1967 while he was assigned to a tactical (mobile) weather satellite readout station, Site VI, at Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base. The DMSP program was still relatively new at that time and AWS was self-conscious about the level of classification cloaking it, so few people were granted access. According to Jim, actual photographs from DMSP were rarely taken outside of the secure trailers at Site VI. While the photos themselves were kept secret, the cloud cover information they provided was widely disseminated among U.S. and Vietnamese forces. Simultaneous readouts at Ton Son Nhut of unclassified National Weather Service weather satellites which did not provide as high a resolution as DMSP images were used as a cover for the classified system. Users not briefed in on DMSP were led to believe that these unclassified satellites were the sole source of weather imagery.

    After early morning air strikes, U.S. fighter-bombers required seven and a half hours turn-around time before their next sortie, so a second wave was not launched until early afternoon. Jim quickly recognized that targets for these afternoon strikes were chosen without the help of timely DMSP pictures. The only DMSP imagery available were more than six hours old.

    In one of his unit’s monthly activities reports to the DMSP System Project Office (SPO) in California Jim included a recommendation that a noon bird be launched, specifically to support tactical air strikes in Vietnam. The SPO responded with an assurance that such a launch was feasible but would require approval by a four-star general: namely, the Commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) General Westmoreland.

    Jim’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Hyko Gayikian gave Jim permission to press on, and he first arranged to brief Army Brigadier General Joseph McChristian, the Army’s Chief of Intelligence in Vietnam. Unlike the Air Force where weather is under the control of operational units, weather in the Army is managed by their intelligence branch. McChristian gave Jim a favorable response and told him to prepare the required Army Disposition Forms and have them ready for Westmoreland’s signature. The next stop on the way to the top was to convince Westmoreland’s Chief of Staff Major General Rossen who was similarly impressed with Jim’s presentation. Rossen commented that “I’m authorized to sign this for the general, but I think the old man would enjoy hearing your briefing.” Jim is an excellent speaker.

    The day finally arrived for young Captain Kennedy to be ushered into General Westmoreland’s inner-office. Lieutenant Colonel Gayikian accompanied Jim and would flip his briefing charts. (How often does a lowly Captain rate a Lieutenant Colonel as assistant?)

    Jim recently related to me what happened next. It was a classic Kennedy act! You have to know a little bit more about Jim to appreciate the scene. Jim can get enthusiastic when he’s turned on by a subject. If you picture Alan Alda you have pictured Jim, both in appearance and sense of humor. He even sounds like his more famous look-alike.

    After the usual introductions, General Westmoreland sat down on a leather couch in front of a coffee table with a bookshelf behind it. Beside him sat Lieutenant General Heintges (three stars) and Brigadier General McChristian (one star) and Jim began his spiel (defined as a lengthy, usually extravagant speech or argument intended to persuade).

    In his own words: “When I came to a particular example, one of the DMSP images that supported the first bombing raid on Hanoi in June, General Heintges blurted out “God damn, those pictures are beautiful!”” At this encouragement Jim’s natural exuberance took over and he responded, “Yes sir, and if we can just get that noon bird - - - - -.” At this point Jim related that – in his usual animated style – he began swinging his arms wildly over his head as he talked and accidentally tipped over a large model of a Huey helicopter sitting on top of the book case. The copter was obviously a very expensive hand-crafted gift from the manufacturer which Jim instinctively grabbed for to keep it from falling to the floor, but he wound up with the rotor in his hand. He had broken it off. Jim stood there awkwardly for what seemed like a century with the rotor still in his hand, and, turning to his audience, was met by “a withering gaze from General Westmoreland’s steely blue eyes.” Jim remembers that his whole life flashed before him at that moment. He had been doing so well – and now this.

    In spite of the havoc Jim wrought, General Westmoreland signed the Disposition Form (without further words to Jim) and a noon bird was soon launched that provided excellent weather intelligence for afternoon target selection.

    In May of 1967, CBS correspondent John Hart visited Site VI and was given a tour of the unclassified portions of the read-out facilities. Jim was there, along with the commander of the 7th Air Force, Lieutenant General William W. Momyer, who told Hart that “This weather picture is probably the greatest innovation of the war.” He was really talking about DMSP pictures which Hart never actually saw. A film clip of this interview was later aired on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News.


    Hank Brandli

    Lieutenant Colonel Hank Brandli, USAF, (Ret.) served in Vietnam with Jim Kennedy. Like Jim, Hank also earned two masters degrees from MIT: in Meteorology and Astronautics.

    Hank was with Jim during the Westmoreland caper. Over some drinks at the O’Club the night before Jim’s presentation, he and Jim reviewed what Jim would say.

    Hank has told me that when he arrived in Vietnam and was briefed into the DMSP program, he instinctively recognized that this would for-ever-more be his bailiwick. He decided then that he would be willing to forego any future promotion in order to continue as a satellite meteorologist. Hank, in fact, did spend the rest of his military career in this, his chosen field. Since his retirement and in spite of developing multiple sclerosis that forced an early retirement, Hank continues to capture weather satellite pictures and consult with DoD weather satellite contractors. Many of Hank’s pictures have been published in magazines, including National Geographic.

    In a recent magazine article Hank wrote:


  • “Locating geographical features in the North [North Vietnam] could be a difficult task, especially searching for holes in the cloud cover through which American fighter-bombers could penetrate toward their targets. An analysis scheme was devised by satellite meteorologists to use the early morning stratus as markers, since these low clouds filled the river valleys. A contemporary of mine, Bob Fett, developed this technique, and it became one of the most useful methods for satellite meteorologists to grid and locate targets over the north.

    As the sun heated these stratus clouds, they dissipated: by noontime the stratus gave way to fair-weather cumulus clouds along the ridgelines, and on some rare clear days important landmarks such as Thud Ridge, the Red River Valley or even the Red River Delta could easily be seen. F-105 and F-4 fighter bombers often made their way down Thud Ridge or on either side of it to targets in the panhandle of North Vietnam. Cloud coverage and windflow could also be interpreted on many of these photographs. Because of the high-resolution imagery they provided, geographical landmarks were easily determined for accurate girding throughout Southeast Asia. The Vietnam coastline itself provided significant features for marking each latitude. These markings enables real-time satellite imagery to be instantaneously gridded upon receipt, and these grided, analyzed photos were used for many Southeast Asia missions.”

  • While the DMSP was extremely useful in supporting both air and ground operations in Vietnam, there was another extremely important use for the intelligence it provided.


    Spies in the sky

    As previously noted, the DMSP, the AWN, and AFGWC’s expensive computers were all funded with money justified by their support to “special strategic programs.” Perhaps the most important of these was our nation’s super-secret spy-satellite program.

    The high-quality optics utilized by these spy-in-the-sky spacecraft were designed early in the Cold War by a blue-ribbon committee. According to Art Gulliver, Dr. Edwin H. Land inventor of the Polaroid camera was a prominent member of this committee, and both the late Dr. Land and the late Dr. Verner E. Soumi, professor of meteorology at the University of Wisconsin and our nation’s foremost expert on meteorological satellite instrumentation, participated in the initial DMSP spacecraft payload design.

    Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Office (SAMSO) managed the development of the DMSP. RCA Corporation was awarded the initial contract which was later sold to General Electric when RCA folded. In 1995, GE sold their space technology division, including the DMSP, to Lockheed-Marietta.

    Spy satellites and DMSP birds both use “spin-scan” technology. Spacecraft are designed to keep themselves oriented so that their sub-satellite points are perpendicularly below their axis of rotation. Each bird rotates at a fixed angular velocity and, using sensors that detect the earth’s horizons, capture data across a strip of land below it on each rotation, usually about 1,500 miles wide. A spy satellite takes actual pictures while DMSP birds measure brightness – shades of gray – plus other meteorological parameters and transmits digital information.

    During 1970-1973, the period I was associated with the program, spy satellites captured their images on photographic film. Corona birds were loaded with up to a mile of film. Obviously, once all of this film was exposed, the craft would become useless – just another piece of space junk. Without support from DMSP and AFGWC, an average of 40-50% of Corona’s exposed film would have been wasted, showing nothing more interesting than the tops of pretty clouds. And therein lay the original justification for the DMSP.


    AFGWC’s contribution

    When the data stream from DMSP satellites reached Global it was first gridded – geographically located - and then fed into a nephanalysis (cloud analysis) program. This program used as data both satellite data and conventional weather observations: surface data, balloon and rocket soundings, and even weather reports from pilots. Multiple cloud layers were individually identified and the altitudes of their bases and tops established and stored in Global’s cloud data base. The completed analysis was then fed into a cloud forecast model program where existing clouds were transported in three dimensions through Global’s dynamic numerical prediction wind fields. Forecast wind fields at multiple levels of the atmosphere moved (time-stepped) existing cloud formations.

    Large scale vertical motion in the atmosphere is impossible to measure directly, however, Global’s numerical prediction programs compute vertical motion indirectly. Where the air is sinking, the model dissipates clouds. Where the air rises, clouds are formed in proportion to the moisture content of the air being lifted.

    Experience showed that the cloud model did a sufficiently reliable job of forecasting out to about nine hours, so all that remained after the cloud model finished its job was for its forecasted values to be beamed up to Corona. The ultimate values transmitted where the percentage of cloud cover – undercast – covering each twenty-five by twenty-five nautical mile chip of land on the earth’s surface. Each transmission covered the next two to three revolutions of the spy satellites.

    As Corona rotated about its axis, a sophisticated computer program on aboard was constantly making decisions whether or not to take a picture of the terrain the camera was currently aimed at. This program contained a complicated library of information about strategic targets on the land below and asked the following questions before it made its decision to click or not click:


  • • Is there a high-priority target in view?

    • How old is our most recent picture of this area?

    • What does Global say about cloud cover?

  • Since the cost of a DMSP spacecraft was much less than that of a spy satellite, stretching the usefulness of the more expensive birds by a factor of two with cloud forecasts was extremely cost-effective. Each year of operations, savings were orders of magnitude larger than the cost of AWS’s entire DMSP program.


    Catch the can if you can

    In the early days of this type of intelligence gathering, including the period that I was associated with the program at AFGWC, exposed film from the spy satellites was dropped back into the atmosphere to somehow be recovered. AWS was an active participant in this part of the total operation as well. Approximately once a month exposed film was snipped off of the reel and placed in a canister which was then ejected from the Corona. Just as in our manned space flights, recovery was always over water and recovery forces were put in-place beforehand. In this case, recovery took place in mid-air. An Air Force C-119 twin boomed cargo plane hovered in its designated area while its crew looked skyward to spot the parachute and canister. Again, Global’s cloud model helped select a relatively cloud-free area, usually north of Hawaii. When the precious parachuted payload was spotted, the C-119 would zoom in and snag the parachute with a cable strung between its twin booms. As far as I ever heard, recovery rate was 100%.

    This system was remarkable in its complexity and success, like something out of Buck Rogers: a testimony to the value of the Air Force’s practice of involving their weather experts in designing both weapons and intelligence gathering systems. For AWS’s part, we selected good people to design and operate our portions of these systems. While I was not personally involved with any of the technical design or day-to-day operations, I enjoyed working with those who were. I viewed it a privilege to have been involved in any capacity. We had fun. Jim Kennedy says that when he looks back, his involvement in DMSP and similar fascinating projects in the 60’s were the professional highlights of his life. the same is true for me, Hank, Cas, and the rest of the gang.

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