Camouflage, Concealment and Deception

March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the late 1950s under the Eisenhower administration, amid the distrust of the Soviet Union, space age competition sparked by the 1957 orbiting of the Sputnik-1 satellite and U.S. military/intelligence bureaucratic rivalries, was born Project CORONA, an aerial reconnaissance program. The program involved the launching into orbit a reconnaissance satellite to acquire imagery intelligence on the Soviet Union—for instance, any evidence of ongoing construction tied to an intercontinental ballistic missile program (ICBM). In other words, after being launched it would take photographs while in orbit and send the images back to Earth, giving Washington access to imagery of large swathes of territory, including remote regions otherwise difficult to access. Efforts originally resided within the Air Force: in 1946, General Curtis E. LeMay envisioned the uses of an orbital satellite; a decade later the Air Force issued General Operational Requirement No. 80 in 1956, establishing guidelines for an advanced reconnaissance satellite, resulting in the Weapon System 117L (WS-117L) program. As part of this program, contractor Lockheed was to develop a “video read-out” satellite, intended to produce scans of photographs which would then be transmitted to Earth (SENTRY/SAMOS); a sub-project developed a film recovery system involving capsules sent to Earth. In 1958, President Eisenhower, particularly fond of clandestine and covert activities, transferred the sub-project, film recovery system, to a team led by CIA Deputy Director (Plans) Richard M. Bissell, Jr., where it could be pursued and funded in secret. CORONA, a joint effort pursued by the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. Air Force, and assisted by private firms, thus continued covertly a program begun by the Air Force, as the true intentions could not be made public [PDF]. This, and subsequent programs, known under the code names LANYARD, ARGON, GRAB, POPPY, GAMBIT, HEXAGON and QUILL, placed several satellites into orbit throughout the 1960s with a series of cameras with varying capabilities, designated KH-1, KH-2, etc. (KH = keyhole)

The activities surrounding the program could not be totally concealed from the public, however, as the firing of launch vehicles into orbit tends to attract attention; its existence therefore not only needed to be kept from adversaries, but also from the domestic population, necessitating the creation of cover stories. Credible explanations were necessary to assuage the curiosity of both the press and the public in order to maintain the “security” of Project CORONA. A 1958 memo [PDF] from Bissell summarizing a plausible cover story explained that the “desired concealment” could only be achieved by “first developing and then giving appropriate circulation to a logical account of the nature and purpose of the series differing from the true purpose.” Such a strategy required that a “minimum amount of information be released,” as denying the press any details “will not only invite a penetration effort on the part of the opposition but create an air of mystery and encourage damaging speculation.” CORONA could be portrayed as an activity serving “a number of legitimate scientific and technical purposes,” which, though possibly “contributing to the development of military technologies,” were not “military in character”; false, or decoy, payloads were to be carried on certain launches “so as to ‘live out’ the cover story.” Any involvement on the part of the intelligence community (IC) was to be concealed.

CORONA satellite imagery CIA Bissel

From a November 5, 1958 memo from CIA Deputy Director (Plans) Richard M. Bissell, Jr. detailing outlines of a cover story for the CORONA project. (image:

Dissociated from the military WS-117L program, CORONA was to be known publicly as “DISCOVERY,” a project devoted to “the development of hardware ultimately usable for either military or peaceful scientific purposes,” investigating technical problems which would “advance the state of the art in pilotless space operation.” Several launches in the DISCOVERY series were to carry “biomedical payloads to test environmental conditions in the upper atmosphere,” contributing to the NASA/ARPA “Man-In-Space” program. A March 1959 memo [PDF] from Bissel summarizing the development of the project restated the need for “security” and secrecy surrounding CORONA: “Specific ostensible missions are being defined for each flight and data will be accumulated ostensibly resulting from the DISCOVERY flights to be furnished on an unclassified basis or with low classification to interested persons.” In 1961, projects CORONA, SAMOS and others were brought under the newly-created National Reconnaissance Program (NRP), consisting of “all satellite and oversight reconnaissance projects,” including “all photographic projects for intelligence, geodesy and mapping purposes, and electronic signal collection projects for electronic signal intelligence and communications intelligence.” These were consolidated under a covert (unacknowledged) organization, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)—whose existence was admitted only in 1992—with staff drawn from both the CIA and the Department of Defense (DoD), responsible to the U.S. Intelligence Board. The need for alternative explanations remained: NRO was to develop “suitable cover plans and public information plans, in conjunction with the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs, to reduce potential political vulnerability of these programs.” [PDF]


“We own the night”: Mission emblem reportedly for August 2000 LACROSSE/ONYX 4 satellite launch (image:

What’s more natural than to conceal these activities, the disclosure of which would jeopardize vital national security interests? Moreover, they understood that in order to keep a secret from one’s adversaries, the domestic population also had to be kept in the dark, as revealing the truth to the U.S. population would be tantamount to revealing it to the Russians as well—unacceptable. Moving to 1983, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 108 [PDF] on October 12, pronouncing the need to respond to the Soviet doctrine of maskirovka, which called for “camouflage, concealment and deception” surrounding defense-related programs; measures designed to mislead or deceive included “concealment, simulation, diversionary actions and disinformation.” U.S. planners were concerned that the Soviet Union “may be attempting to deceive the West regarding the intent and purpose of basic policies, e.g., arms control.” Clearly, outwitting such perfidy required a more “aggressive and focused” intelligence program, devoting training and resources to countering Soviet attempts at obfuscation. The document was to be handled through TALENT-KEYHOLE control channels—a compartmented security designation to protect material/intelligence obtained from manned aircraft overflights and reconnaissance satellites—meaning the implementation likely included the development of new techniques of satellite surveillance.

These concerns, along with Soviet anti-satellite capabilities, impelled the development of alternative projects, among which LACROSSE (later ONYX), a series of radar imaging reconnaissance satellites, first launched in 1988, and Misty, a series of stealth (difficult to detect) electro-optical reconnaissance satellites, possibly derived from KH-11 Block 3 satellites (codenamed CRYSTAL), first launched in 1990. Misty, guarded under a highly secret and compartmented designation, was designed to be less vulnerable to various types of detection, possibly through the use of an inflatable, “signature suppression” shield (although its existence could not be kept secret from certain amateur satellite enthusiasts). The successor to ONYX—which, according to the leaked FY2013 National Intelligence Program budget [PDF] has been de-orbited—is another radar imaging satellite known under the name TOPAZ, for which five satellites were apparently planned before transitioning to Block 2. Although these systems were developed in response to Cold War necessities, it should not be surprising that they, or their derivatives, can still be of use—after all, the world is still a dangerous place. Among the various other satellite systems within the National Reconnaissance Program budget, we find the expenditures for an Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System (costing $1.55 billion for FY2013), and the TOPAZ (1-5) and TOPAZ Block 2 (collectively costing $192.5 million for FY2013):



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