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American Military Space Program: Initial Military Operations


The two great activities of the 1980s for military space was the formation of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) in 1982 and the initiation of the Strategic Defense Initiation (SDI) under President Ronald Regan in 1984. Also with the advent of AFSPC, Air Force war planners began taking a more serious and thorough look at the tactical uses of space based systems.


Intelligence missions continued into this decade but their missions remain classified to this present day.


One type of weapon geared to negating the use of space systems is the anti-satellite weapon. During the 1960s, the USAF developed a ground based system called Program 437 which consisted of a Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) with a nuclear warhead. The idea was to launch the missile in the direction of an enemy satellite and detonate the nuclear warhead. The system worked quite well except that although it would destroy an adversary's space system, it might also destroy your own systems. The Air Force deployed Program 437 on Johnston Island in the Pacific, and it remained operational until 1970. In 1975, the Air Force began development of an advanced anti-satellite system. The new system would use a two-stage rocket with a miniature infrared homing sensor device and be launched from an F-15. It would then home in on the target using the infrared sensor and destroy the enemy satellite by impacting it. The first free-flight test took place in 1984, and it succeeded in destroying an American military technology satellite in 1985. However, the program was canceled in 1988 due to budget constraints and Congressional restrictions.


The military weather satellite system, DMSP, continued to evolve and improve. There were four launches of a new class of meteorological satellites, the 5D-2 model, during the 1980s using a new launch vehicle, the former Atlas E ICBM. These former ICBMs were refurbished to be medium weight launch vehicles.


The Navy continued to be the pioneers in tactical use of space based systems with its FltSatCom system. Eight satellites for this system were launched in the 1980s giving excellent coverage for tactical users. Because of the explosion for the need of military communications, the Navy realized that it own internal system was incapable of supporting all of its needs. It also needed a follow-on system to the FltSatCom satellites. Congress directed that the DoD should also make more use of leased commercial facilities and the Leasat satellites were designed. Five Leasats were launched between 1984 and 1990, and prepared the way for its own successor system, the UHF Follow-On, also called UFO. For the Air Force, they finished launching the last of its DSCS II satellites in 1982, and began deployment of its advanced DSCS III system. A total of four DSCS III satellites were launched in the 1980s.



Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
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