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A couple decades after Sputnik, how advanced was the satellite technology during the Yom Kippur War, and how did U.S. intelligence completely miss the mobilization of Arabian armies?

I have read a few different articles like afhistory.org, but I'd like a more comprehensive summary. The article has some anecdotes like:

In May 1973 satellite photography, we observed a large Egyptian exercise in the desert with a mockup, in the sand, of the Suez Canal and Israeli defenses along the Bar-Lev Line. We saw units arrayed in formations as if for a review or inspection. There were several armored units with SA–6 missiles indicating that the SA–6 missile units would be following the armored units into battle and be their protection. A CIA analyst, who specialized in the area, had written a report that an Egyptian attack was imminent. When Egyptian units customarily went back to their garrisons, the analyst was transferred.

or

In September 1973, in a newly recovered satellite system, strips of experimental bonus color film had been attached to the end of the conventional black and white film. Unfortunately, the color film was expended over Syria and the Golan Heights. The color film was processed with the black and white one and was nearly useless.

so my takeaway is, the tech was reasonably advanced, but by no means mature, and not enough attention was given to the new technology. Is that an accurate assessment?

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    Given the limitations of satellite imaging explained in Danila's answer, one would expect more conventional aerial reconnaissance. Were there no regularly scheduled flights that would detect war preparations? Feb 21 at 13:48
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    The literal question is "How advanced was...", but is the real question "Could more advanced satellite technology have prevented the surprise attack?" or "Was satellite technology advanced enough to have been able to prevent the surprise attack?" - ? Feb 21 at 16:31
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica conventional air recon has its own downsides. The article linked by OP mentions that arab forces had robust SAM defence system in place that deterred Israeli recon flights until fairly late into the fighting, and SR-71 flights by the USA were limited due to available base locations being pretty far from the theater. Feb 22 at 3:39

1 Answer 1

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When we are comparing tech maturity here, it is important to remember that 1970s saw a change of technologies in satellite imaging - photographic satellites, which captured images on photographic film (i.e analog imaging), were replaced by electro-optical satellites, which captured data in digital form. Photographic technology was mature in 1973, which is to mean that it had its developmental kinks mostly worked out; but due to its analog nature, it had certain limitations that were not due to tech immaturity, but inherent to the tech.

In 1973, the satellites that were available to USA intelligence would be KH-8 Gambit 3 and KH-9 Hexagon models. They were more or less equal in their photographic capabilities, the main difference relevant to our subject being that Hexagon's camera was designed to take stereographic images, which made interpreting them somewhat easier, but Gambit 3's single camera could potentially achieve better resolution. Based on info available, both satellites could take photos with resolution of 1-2 feet, and under ideal conditions - Gambit 3 could achieve resolution up to 4-10 inches, depending on current distance to surface. Even the worst case scenario allowed for the recognition of military vehicles and to some degree identification of the type (i.e. it's enough to tell a tank apart from a truck or an APC, but you likely won't be able to tell one Soviet Cold War-era tank from another).

A more important difference was in the number of reentry vehicles. Why are reentry vehicles important? Because before digital imaging took over, the film had to be physically returned to Earth to retrieve images (some experiments in scanning film onboard the satellite and transmitting the data by radio were made in the 1960s, but apparently results were unsatisfactory; regardless, this wouldn't solve the problem of film being a finite resource). This is the most important tech limitation I was talking about. Gambit 3 Block III, which would be the model available in 1973 carried two return vehicles; Hexagon satellites carried four. At no point in 1973 would the USA have more than two such satellites (that I know of) up simultaneously, so what you got was six series of photographs, after which you would need to launch a new satellite to get more. That meant the decision to take that satellite photo was not a simple decision to make - and the cost of a bad analysis that wasted that shot was, quite literally, astronomical.

Digital imaging, which became available in 1976 with the launch of the first KH-11 KENNEN satellite, eliminated this problem; now you only had to worry about how long the satellite could stay in orbit and/or powered. But these were still in development during Yom-Kippur War.

Another important point to cover would be that even after you got your images, you still had to interpret them - manually. That means that someone had to sit and look through hundreds (or possibly thousands, if you wanted to compare newer images to older ones) of photos, and then make sense of what they were seeing. This process was quite time-consuming, and, as the anecdote you quoted shows, the results often came down to subjective judgement.

To sum it up: USA photographic spy satellite technology was quite mature in 1973, but was more suited to long-term observation and strategic analysis than gathering of quickly changing information such as day-to-day troops movement due to limitations inherent to base technology.

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    Looking at the links, it appears they were averaging 3 KH8 and 3 KH9 launches, totaling 18 return capsules per year giving a return rate of roughly every 3 weeks, assuming the photo you want is on the capsule returning that month. Pretty good for strategic analysis but must have been frustratingly glacial observing something that started and finished in a month. Also relevant that the capsules were normally recovered over the ocean and then would need to be flown home to be developed, adding further delays Feb 21 at 10:07
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    @GremlinWranger they were also not launched uniformly over the course of their service. If we look at KH8, we can see that all of Block I sats (22 units) were launched within three years time. If we look at the remaining launches, we get only 2 per year average. These also had a pretty short orbital life - for those that have decay date given, they were active for about two months at a time. That would probably mean they were launched with a particular goal in mind (filming a specific event), which would also increase time from decision to film to getting a result. Feb 21 at 10:50
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    That the images could not be transmitted electronically is mind-boggling to a modern person and seems incongruous with being able to put a satellite in orbit. I assume it was primarily extremely low bandwidth -- some signals must have been sent to and received from satellites but enough data to include an image was a problem not practically solved for at least another decade, I would guess.
    – releseabe
    Feb 21 at 20:35
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    @releseabe well, no. KH-11 series satellites could do just that and first of them flew in 1976; and even in the 1960s autonomous space probes could transfer quite a lot of image data, even if it took them several hours to do so. The problem was with imaging sensors. It is estimated that first KH-11s had the same imaging capabilities as much older CORONA satellites - significantly worse than aforementioned KH-8 and KH-9. That's the most likely reason why photographic satellites continued being used until the mid-80s (when KH-11 Block II were introduced) in parallel with KH-11s. Feb 22 at 4:21
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    @releseabe many different technologies must be mature enough to get high-res digital images beamed down to Earth in near-real time, but they did not all mature at the same rate.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 23 at 6:45

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