Author Topic: How much did a US spy satellite launch cost in late 1980s/early 1990s?  (Read 3105 times)

Offline Vahe231991

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I'm aware of the misconception that the SR-71 was being retired in March 1990 because of not just its high maintenance cost but also because most of its reconnaissance functions were being taken up by satellites. However, in his 1993 book Aurora: The Pentagonís Secret Hypersonic Spyplane, Bill Sweetman noted that even though the SR-71 had become expensive to maintain on the eve of its retirement, the annual operating cost of the Blackbird was below 7 percent of the money spent by the Pentagon each year on reconnaissance satellites, prompting him to doubt that the SR-71's retirement was due to high maintenance costs and the emergence of spy satellites fulfilling many of the SR-71's functions. Are there any unclassified or declassified Pentagon and NRO documents that mention the annual cost of a US reconnaissance satellite launch in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

Offline edzieba

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SR-71 could not overfly the Soviet Union or China. Even if maintenance was free and the aircraft returned from each sortie with an airframe stuffed with dollar bills, the SR-71 would have been facing retirement from being unable to capture the required imagery.

Offline Jim

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SR-71 could not overfly the Soviet Union or China. Even if maintenance was free and the aircraft returned from each sortie with an airframe stuffed with dollar bills, the SR-71 would have been facing retirement from being unable to capture the required imagery.

Also, it couldn't do repeat coverage quickly and much less total coverage

Offline Jim

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Are there any unclassified or declassified Pentagon and NRO documents that mention the annual cost of a US reconnaissance satellite launch in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

no

Offline Vahe231991

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Are there any unclassified or declassified Pentagon and NRO documents that mention the annual cost of a US reconnaissance satellite launch in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

no
I just noticed that a 1990 Congressional Budget Office document estimated the cost of a KH-11 launch at $1.25-1.75 billion and the cost of a Magnum satellite launch at $250,000-750,000. Since those estimates for a KH-11 or Magnum satellite launch in 1990 dwarfed the annual operating and maintenance cost of the SR-71 on the eve of its retirement in March 1990, Bill Sweetman felt he had good reason to believe that the US Air Force was replacing the SR-71 with a more advanced spyplane in the event of an unlucky string of satellite launch failures worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, the Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System (AARS) program (codenamed Quartz by the CIA) conceived in the 1980s and which was canceled in the early 1990s due to high cost aroused interest from the USAF in the late 1980s because some Air Force officials saw the AARS as a cheaper platform than a costly spy satellite from which to transmit imagery to field commanders due to its intended use of a real-time data link. When putting the reactivation of the SR-71 in 1995 within the context of the 1990 CBO report's estimates of a KH-11 or Magnum satellite launch, it is apparent that Sweetman was justified in arguing that continued operation of the SR-71 beyond 1990 would have provided cheap assurance against a string a spy satellite launch failures.

Offline Nighthawk117

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It appears as though the SR-71 has, after all these years after retirement, been replaced by the RQ-180.

https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/39882/how-the-rq-180-drone-will-emerge-from-the-shadows-as-the-centerpiece-of-a-warfighting-revolution

Offline Vahe231991

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It appears as though the SR-71 has, after all these years after retirement, been replaced by the RQ-180.

https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/39882/how-the-rq-180-drone-will-emerge-from-the-shadows-as-the-centerpiece-of-a-warfighting-revolution
Indeed. The estimates for a KH-11 or Magnum satellite launch made in the 1990 CBO document I mention on this thread tie in perfectly to Bill Sweetman's skepticism of claims about the SR-71 being made redundant by newer reconnaissance satellites by supporting his observation that the SR-71's annual operating/maintenance cost in 1990 was puny compared to annual expenditures on spy satellite launches. Given that the canceled AARS (CIA codename Quartz) flying wing UAV would have included a data link to transmit satellite images to battlefield commanders (which the SR-71 did not have when it was retired in 1990), and the SR-71 resumed service in 1995 only to be retired again in 1998 despite having been modified to incorporate a real-time data link, the introduction of spy satellites filling many of the niches of the Blackbird didn't mean that high-altitude spyplanes were going away because the cancelled AARS probably would have been cheaper to maintain and operate than the SR-71 thanks to its flying wing configuration, and the RQ-180 fulfills the very role which the AARS would have occupied.

Offline edzieba

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The RQ-180 performs a different mission to the KH-11 and SR-71, just as the KH-8 and KH-9 performed different missions (with the sole attempt to use a KH-8 to sub for KH-9 being a dud). RQ-180 is a tactical reconnaissance asset, KH-11 is a strategic reconnaissance asset. The SR-71 was also intended for strategic rather than tactical reconnaissance: it could do it in a pinch - if it happened to be already ready to fly a mission, and already in the right place, and had a route in and out that could dodge RADAR coverage and SAM engagement envelopes - but was not an ideal platform to do so. Same with the KH-11, if one happens to be flying over the target at the right time then you can get a real-time image, but that's not what it's for.

Offline Vahe231991

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The RQ-180 performs a different mission to the KH-11 and SR-71, just as the KH-8 and KH-9 performed different missions (with the sole attempt to use a KH-8 to sub for KH-9 being a dud). RQ-180 is a tactical reconnaissance asset, KH-11 is a strategic reconnaissance asset. The SR-71 was also intended for strategic rather than tactical reconnaissance: it could do it in a pinch - if it happened to be already ready to fly a mission, and already in the right place, and had a route in and out that could dodge RADAR coverage and SAM engagement envelopes - but was not an ideal platform to do so. Same with the KH-11, if one happens to be flying over the target at the right time then you can get a real-time image, but that's not what it's for.
While you're definitely right that the KH-9 was designed for strategic reconnaissance and so is the KH-11, the RQ-180 is a strategic reconnaissance asset because it has been designed for penetrating heavily defended airspace like the SR-71 and early-generation U-2 even though its exact operating range its classified. The fact that satellites can only provide episodic coverage of enemy territory due to the laws of orbital mechanics is another reason as to why it's obvious that spyplanes designed for strategic or tactical reconnaissance as well as surveillance are still vital high-altitude reconnaissance assets despite the deployment of satellites taking over most of the SR-71's functions because like the canceled AARS/Quartz program, the RQ-180 can overfly military targets of strategic importance in heavily defended airspace for an extended period of time.

Offline Jim

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I just noticed that a 1990 Congressional Budget Office document estimated the cost of a KH-11 launch at $1.25-1.75 billion and the cost of a Magnum satellite launch at $250,000-750,000. Since those estimates for a KH-11 or Magnum satellite launch in 1990 dwarfed the annual operating and maintenance cost of the SR-71 on the eve of its retirement in March 1990, Bill Sweetman felt he had good reason to believe that the US Air Force was replacing the SR-71 with a more advanced spyplane in the event of an unlucky string of satellite launch failures worth hundreds of millions of dollars. ......

nope.
SR-71 or any airborne platform could never do the Magnum mission.
Same goes for KH-11.  SR-71 could never do even the CORONA mission

Offline Jim

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While you're definitely right that the KH-9 was designed for strategic reconnaissance and so is the KH-11, the RQ-180 is a strategic reconnaissance asset because it has been designed for penetrating heavily defended airspace like the SR-71 and early-generation U-2


wrong.  That is not the definition for strategic reconnaissance

Offline Vahe231991

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I just noticed that a 1990 Congressional Budget Office document estimated the cost of a KH-11 launch at $1.25-1.75 billion and the cost of a Magnum satellite launch at $250,000-750,000. Since those estimates for a KH-11 or Magnum satellite launch in 1990 dwarfed the annual operating and maintenance cost of the SR-71 on the eve of its retirement in March 1990, Bill Sweetman felt he had good reason to believe that the US Air Force was replacing the SR-71 with a more advanced spyplane in the event of an unlucky string of satellite launch failures worth hundreds of millions of dollars. ......

nope.
SR-71 or any airborne platform could never do the Magnum mission.
Same goes for KH-11.  SR-71 could never do even the CORONA mission
I agree that the SR-71 was never designed to do the Magnum satellite's purpose of listening to military and diplomatic communications.

What I should mention is the fact that when a handful of SR-71s were being prepared for reactivation in 1995, they were fitted with an electro-optical digital imaging camera like the one used by the KH-11 spy satellite.   

Offline Jim

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I just noticed that a 1990 Congressional Budget Office document estimated the cost of a KH-11 launch at $1.25-1.75 billion and the cost of a Magnum satellite launch at $250,000-750,000. Since those estimates for a KH-11 or Magnum satellite launch in 1990 dwarfed the annual operating and maintenance cost of the SR-71 on the eve of its retirement in March 1990, Bill Sweetman felt he had good reason to believe that the US Air Force was replacing the SR-71 with a more advanced spyplane in the event of an unlucky string of satellite launch failures worth hundreds of millions of dollars. ......

nope.
SR-71 or any airborne platform could never do the Magnum mission.
Same goes for KH-11.  SR-71 could never do even the CORONA mission
I agree that the SR-71 was never designed to do the Magnum satellite's purpose of listening to military and diplomatic communications.

What I should mention is the fact that when a handful of SR-71s were being prepared for reactivation in 1995, they were fitted with an electro-optical digital imaging camera like the one used by the KH-11 spy satellite.   

Meaningless, still couldn't do the KH-11 mission

 

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