9 March 2020
Space reconnaissance and Anglo-American relations during the Cold War
By Aaron Bateman
The Space Review
In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced his intention to pursue a capability that would render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. This concept became the basis of his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that was derisively referred to as “Star Wars.” SDI represented a fundamental shift in American military strategy away from nuclear deterrence, but none of the NATO allies were consulted. When Reagan attempted to garner British support for the program, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was especially annoyed by the fact that London had agreed to upgrade its nuclear deterrent using the American-made Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) system. British support for SDI would have seemed to contradict the need for Trident, which represented the United Kingdom’s long-term commitment to nuclear deterrence. When it became clear that SDI would involve the placement of kinetic-kill weapons in space, many European allies, in addition to the Soviet Union, began to publicly express concerns that the US was weaponizing outer space. Yet ultimately, Thatcher supported both SDI and the American Miniature Homing Vehicle (MHV) anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons program.
Recently declassified British national security documents establish that the United Kingdom had a very complicated attitude regarding the deployment of weapons in space. The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) both lobbied Thatcher to convince Reagan that deploying weapons in space was not in the national security interest of the US and Britain. The MoD and FCO made a compelling argument that American space weapons could make reconnaissance satellites an even greater target for the Soviet Union.
Thatcher believed, however, that confronting the US on this issue could harm the Anglo-American intelligence relationship. Additionally, she was very concerned with the Soviet space weapons program and supported the US in having a capability to deter attacks on overhead reconnaissance systems. Examining the British attitude towards the weaponization of space reveals that space intelligence systems were a central foreign policy concern and that overhead reconnaissance was a significant aspect of the Anglo-American partnership.
There is a vast literature on Anglo-American intelligence sharing during and after the Second World War. The role of overhead reconnaissance systems in Anglo-American cooperation, however, has received little attention mainly due to the classification of relevant materials. It is possible now to examine this subject in greater detail because of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and British documents that have only recently become available. What emerges from a close investigation of these sources is that British access to American space intelligence resources was a defining aspect of the very close intelligence partnership during the Cold War. The United Kingdom recognized that it had a privileged position, among the European allies, with regard to American space systems, and the maintenance of this arrangement was a primary objective of the British government.
From its inception in the early 1960s, the US government considered its space reconnaissance program to be one of the most sensitive American intelligence activities. Deciding how much information about the program to disclose to allies, therefore, became a contentious subject. The United Kingdom was fully involved in U-2 aerial reconnaissance operations, including British pilots flying very dangerous and politically risky missions over the USSR. Additionally, the US provided the United Kingdom raw imagery from CORONA space reconnaissance satellites. In the summer of 1962, the US briefed all NATO heads of government, foreign ministers, and permanent representatives on the North Atlantic Council about the “fact of” the space reconnaissance program. Very few NATO government leaders were shown actual imagery products and the British were unique in being permitted to exploit raw imagery.
But as the US developed the successor programs to CORONA, continued British access was not a foregone conclusion. For example, US officials debated whether or not to provide the United Kingdom full access to the LANYARD program. The United Kingdom was aware of the fact that its access to space-derived intelligence could be revoked, especially due to a diplomatic row in some other area. After the 1956 Suez Crisis— when Britain, France, and Israel conspired behind Eisenhower’s back to regain control of the Suez Canal and oust the president of Egypt—Eisenhower cut off British access to U-2 imagery. British officials did not want to lose access to such an important reconnaissance capability again.
When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she took a personal interest in both space reconnaissance capabilities and in ASATs. When deciding how to approach the US on both ASAT arms control and SDI, Thatcher personally reviewed multiple studies on both subjects. In a July 1984 memorandum, her intelligence chief, Percy Cradock, stated that Britain needed to be very cautious in handling both issues in part because of “our own dependence on US space-derived intelligence.” In a June 1984 joint-MoD/FCO study on ASATs, the authors highlighted the fact that the West was more dependent on communications and reconnaissance satellites than the Soviet Union. They advocated “an arms control regime on ASATs which hampered the development of BMD [ballistic missile defense] on both sides would be in our national interest.” Because SDI and ASATs involved many of the same fundamental technologies, a ban on ASATs would have likely prevented SDI from moving into a testing and deployment phase. Interestingly, the study also contains a table with information about American reconnaissance satellite systems but under the section on signals intelligence satellites, it says they have “little information [about specific capabilities].” The document contained much more detailed information, however, on photographic reconnaissance systems.
On July 10, 1984, Thatcher attended a presentation at MoD Headquarters “at [the] TOP SECRET CODEWORD level” on “U.S. intelligence satellite systems.” The USSR had an operational ASAT program since the early 1970s, and Thatcher showed a particular interest in the potential effects of Soviet ASATs on US reconnaissance satellites. Additionally, she discussed American ASAT capabilities with the head of the SDI Program Office, Lieutenant General James Abrahamson, on multiple occasions. According to her private secretary, Lord Charles Powell, most of these meetings that detailed US space and ASAT capabilities involved only Thatcher and her private secretary due to the classification level of the capabilities being presented.
On July 16, Thatcher chaired a meeting with her top national security advisors to discuss ASAT arms control. She expressed her disagreement with the MoD/FCO study and said that regarding ASATs and SDI, “the Americans had a great deal more technical knowledge than the UK and we would risk annoying them needlessly.” Thatcher wanted to avoid a row with the US on ASATs and SDI that could harm Anglo-American intelligence sharing. She went on to say that it was important not to advocate a position that would prevent the US from achieving parity with the Soviets in “low altitude [i.e., low earth orbit] ASATs.” She did agree, however, with the need to work towards a ban on ASATs in geosynchronous orbit where the United Kingdom’s Skynet series satellite was deployed.
Thatcher was acutely aware of Britain’s dependence on the US for space-derived intelligence. The United Kingdom’s reliance on the US for technical intelligence became especially apparent during the Falklands War in 1982 (see “The Lion and the Vortex”, The Space Review, March 11, 2013). Thatcher was also concerned about the United Kingdom remaining relevant in its technical intelligence cooperation with America. British historian Mark Urban interviewed former National Security Agency director Lieutenant-General William Odom for his book UK Eyes Alpha: Inside Story of British Intelligence. In the book, he quotes Odom as saying that “the claims frequently heard in Whitehall that GCHQ remains a world-class player were by the 1980s self-delusion.” Odom went on to say that:
In an effort to boost Britain’s relevance to the US, Thatcher approved the development of Zircon, a signals intelligence satellite that was intended to be launched in 1988. While most of the program’s details remain classified, the British government cancelled the program in 1987 due to cost. Interestingly, in a declassified memorandum providing talking points for a 1987 meeting between US National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci and Thatcher, Zircon is highlighted. The document suggests mentioning that “[we] hope very much that we shall be able to reach [an] agreement on overhead systems and a successor to Zircon. We want to stay in this [space reconnaissance] game.”
When senior British national security officials discussed potential policies on American ASATs and SDI, they considered their potential consequences for preserving access to US space reconnaissance systems. While the British were concerned about Anglo-American intelligence cooperation as whole, space-derived intelligence was the only area specifically singled out as absolutely essential for British security. Because of Britain’s dependence on the American space reconnaissance program, Thatcher wanted to ensure that the US possessed the capability to protect it from Soviet ASAT attacks. She, therefore, carefully considered the implications of SDI and ASATs for the resiliency of reconnaissance satellites. The British linkage of policy decisions on American national security programs, like SDI and ASATs, to intelligence satellites highlights how highly London valued space-derived intelligence. Reconnaissance satellites, therefore, played an important role in keeping British and American foreign policy closely aligned. In addition to their primary role as the silent American sentinels during the Cold War, intelligence satellites were a valuable diplomatic tool in Anglo-American relations.