Imagining Soviet Surveying

Last week I wrote about some of the apparent differences between how the US and the Soviet Union used satellites for mapping and geodesy. The Soviets seem to have been slower to operate dedicated satellites in both areas, with no apparent explanation. Though it’s dubious to use US intelligence estimates as evidence of what the Soviets were actually doing, they do at least shed light on some of the possibilities.

Two CIA reports from from the pre-sattellite era, in 1954 and 1957, suggested that if the Soviets had made a connection across the Bering Strait between their own domestic surveys and the North American Datum, missiles launched from near the Bering Strait would have a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of 300–500 feet. Without the connection between datum, the error would be closer to 1,000 feet. By making observations of an upcoming solar eclipse and gaining access to the equivalent measurements from US or Western European sites, the CIA predicted the error in intercontinental position could be reduced to about 500 feet from anywhere in the Soviet Union.

These estimates assumed that the target could be located on high-quality American maps, which the analysts presumed were available to Soviet planners. But what if the targets were secret sites not plotted on any maps? A Studies in Intelligence article (“Spy Mission to Montana”) from 1995 revealed that the CIA and Air Force tested those conditions as the silos for Minutemen ICBMs were being built in 1962. A three-person team, two from the CIA and one from the Army Map Service, made covert observations of the sites under construction from their rental car. Dodging both site security and the official survey being done by the Air Force’s 1381st Geodetic Survey Squadron, the covert team proved that observations could be made with a CEP of 600 feet when maps at 1:250,000 scale were available and a CEP of 200 feet with 1:62,500 scale maps.

Did the Soviet Union make a secret measurement of the Bering Strait or send its agents to survey the locations on American missile silos? The answer is probably somewhere in the files of the KGB or GRU.


Soviet Satellites and Mapping

John Davies’ website has announced that his and Alexander Kent’s book The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World will be released by University of Chicago Press. Details for the book on the press website show 272 pages and 282 (!) colour plates and a publication month of October 2017. Having read what the authors have written elsewhere about Soviet maps, I’m really looking forward to the book. In particular, I’m hoping it will offer not just more information on how the Soviet military prepared their maps but also some insight into why and for who.

The technical military challenges that drove both American and Soviet cartographic projects during the Cold War were very similar, which leaves the differences in practice between them begging for explanation. Take, for example, the apparent difference in exploiting satellite geodesy. Both countries very swiftly exploited the fact that perturbations in satellite orbits revealed new details on gravity and, by extension, the shape of the earth. They also must have recognized that satellites made better targets for intercontinental triangulation than rockets, stars, or the sun and moon, all conventional targets at the time.

As a result, Sputnik effectively sidelined an American-led terrestrial program of geodetic measurements for the International Geophysical Year that had been under development since 1954. Led by William Markowitz of the US Naval Observatory, using dual-rate cameras of his own design, the program distributed cameras to observatories around the world to make simultaneous moon observations during 1957. Using an approach to triangulation similar to that used during eclipses, the promised precision was to within about 90 feet at each observatory. Uncertainties in the position of the moon meant the 1957 observations never delivered geodetic results, but more substantially the entire concept had been rendered obsolete.

Consequently, in addition to measurement projects that were added to other scientific satellites, the US launched its first dedicated geodetic satellite in 1962. ANNA-1B was a joint Department of Defense-NASA project that carried instruments to enable both triangulation and trilateration. Its launch came only two years after the US lofted its first photo-reconnaissance satellite, which makes sense because both satellites were part of the effort to find and target Soviet strategic missiles.

Intriguingly, then, it was six more years before the Soviet Union launched its own dedicated geodetic satellite. The first of the Sfera series (Russian for “Geoid”) satellites (11F621) flew in 1968, launched from the rocket base at Pleketsk. Built by design bureau OKB-10 on the popular KAUR satellite bus, the Sfera satellites were equipped with lights and radio transmitters similar to those on ANNA-1B. Operational flights ran from 1973 to 1980.

A similar difference was apparent in the case of satellites equipped with cameras for mapping, as opposed to high-resolution reconnaissance photography. A dedicated mapping satellite was among the planned elements of the first US reconnaissance satellite system, the Air Force’s SAMOS (or Satellite and Missile Observation System). That camera, the E-4, never flew, but the Army’s very similar project ARGON was grafted onto the CIA Corona program. ARGON was rendered obsolete by the inclusion of small mapping cameras on subsequent satellite systems but after ARGON’s first launch in 1961 – only one year after the very first US reconnaissance satellite – the US was never without a mapping capacity in orbit.

In the USSR, on the other hand, the first dedicated mapping satellite came quite late. The Zenit-4MT, program name Orion (11F629), was a variant of the main Soviet series of photo-reconnaissance satellites. First launched in 1971 and accepted into operational service in 1976, Orion began flying nine years after the first Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite was launched. Unlike the Americans, who integrated mapping cameras into other photo-reconnaissance satellites, the Soviets seem to have continued to fly dedicated cartographic systems for the remainder of the Cold War (this is early 2000s information, so it may be obsolete now). Zenit-4MT (Orion) was followed in the early 1980s by the Yantar-1KFT, program name Siluet/Kometa (11F660), a system which combined the propulsion and instrument modules of the latest Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite with the descent canister from the Zenit-4MT. Flying alongside Kometa was an upgraded Zenit, the Zenit-8, program name Oblik, an interim design introduced because of delays in the former.

I hope The Red Atlas or someone else can explain more about what was happening here, because it certainly looks like the Soviet Union was making very different decisions from the Americans when it came to satellite geodesy and cartography.

Source Notes: Information on Soviet satellites comes from a range of sources, much of it in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. For the Orion series, Philip S. Clark, “Orion: The First Soviet Cartographic Satellites,” JBIS vol. 54 (2001), pp. 417–23. For Siluet/Kometa, Philip S. Clark, “Classes of Soviet/Russian Photoreconnaissance Satellites,”JBIS vol. 54 (2001), pp. 344–650. On the launch of Sfera from Pleketsk, Bart Hendrickx,”Building a Rocket Base in the Taiga: The Early Years of the Plesetsk Launch Site (1955-1969) (Part 2),” JBIS vol. 66, Supplement 2 (2013), pp. 220 (and online). For the Markowitz moon camera, Steven J.  Dick, “Geodesy, Time, and the Markowitz Moon Camera Program: An Interwoven International Geophysical Year Story,” in Globalizing Polar Science: Reconsidering the International Polar and Geophysical Years, edited by Roger D. Launius, James Roger Fleming, and David H. DeVorkin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Liner Notes: Paying for War in Angola

There’s  a common military aphorism that amateurs talk tactics but professionals talk logistics. Despite that famous statement, histories of logistics can be hard to find and among those histories of finance (beneath the strategic level) even harder. The obscurity extends beyond historians even to the militaries you would expect to know better. According to a short monograph recently published by Air University Press, the US Air Force went into both Gulf Wars without a financial management system capable of operating in a war zone.

One of the more innovative experiments in managing finance in the theater of operations comes from the Cuban intervention in Angola. It’s particularly interesting for me because it hinged on one of the more unusual instruments of postwar power, the cruise liner.

Between 1975 and 1991 more than 430,000 Cuban soldiers and civilians served in Angola. The troops, who were a mix of professionals, reservists, and conscripts, were all ostensibly volunteers. Though conscripts got the perk of reducing their service from three years to two, in general pay was poor. An ordinary soldier received seven Cuban pesos and 150 Angolan kwanzas per month, disbursed at the end of the soldier’s tour. The kwanzas could be used to buy discounted luxury goods in special subsidized shops in Luanda. The pesos were for home. To avoid having to funnel all returning troops through Havana or operate pay counters in every port of arrival, the Cubans hit on an unusual solution. For most of the 1980s they hired the Soviet cruise liner Leonid Sobinov to float off the Angolan coast as a “money ship.” Troops were shuttled out to the Sobinov to receive their back pay before the long transatlantic voyage home. Under close escorts because it carried so much money, the Sobinov usually stayed in Angolan waters for three days at a time. At least once it remained for a month.

The original designers of the Sobinov had probably never considered such as use for the ship. That said, they had probably also never considered that it would be owned by the Soviets. Like many of the Soviet Union’s larger passenger ships, it had been constructed outside the Soviet sphere entirely. Built for the Cunard Line in Britain as the RMS Saxonia in the mid-1950s, the Sobinov was sold to the Soviet Union and renamed in 1973. In addition to its unique duties as a “money ship,” it operated as an occasional troopship and cruise ship in the south Pacific and Mediterranean. It was laid up in the mid-1990s and scrapped in 1999.

Source: Edward George, The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965–1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (Frank Cass, 2005)

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky

During the Second World War, when it still seemed like the Germans might capture Moscow, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote a list of Soviet propagandists who were to be killed upon capture. Number one was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Number two was chief Radio Moscow announcer Iurii Levitan. Number three was Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the designer and artist of one of the Red Army’s chief illustrated propaganda magazines.

That, at least, was the story, one which is mentioned – with appropriate skepticism – by Erika Wolf in the catalogue to a major exhibit of artist Aleksandr Zhitomirsky’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. A talented designer and illustrator whose most striking works were the satirical, even grotesque, photomontages that he created in the early years of the Cold War, Zhitomirsky’s work pilloried capitalism and the United States, often with allusions to the Nazi threat against which Zhitomirsky had cut his teeth propagandizing. While his main employment from 1953 to 1991 was as chief artist for Soviet Union (Sovietskii Soiuz), a glossy magazine aimed at readers in Eastern Europe and Asia, his illustrations appeared in the Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaia gazeta), official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers; Red Fleet (Krasnyi flot); Rising Generation (Smena); the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile), and even occasionally in more exalted venues such as Truth (Pravda), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and News (Izvestiia), official paper of the Soviet government. Those works attracted attention not just at home, where he was part of a major photomontage exhibit in East Berlin in 1961/2 and had his own retrospective in Moscow, but even in the US, where some of his photomontages from the Literary Gazette drew comment in the New York Times.

On balance it’s the postwar art, not just the illustrations mentioned above but also the book covers and occasional poster, that is the focus of Wolf’s Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2016). For me, though, it’s Zhitomirsky’s wartime work on Front Illustrated (Frontovaia illiustratsiia) and its complementary German-language edition aimed at enemy soldiers (Front Illustrated for German Soldiers / Front-Illustrierte für den deutschen Soldaten) that’s more captivating. The postwar designs are hardly subtle. How often can one look at a monkey-like Goebbels ventriloquizing through some American symbol?

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky CoverFront Illustrated for German Soldiers, which existed to sow unease and dissension in the German ranks, had to be more indirect. For his cover designs and leaflets, Zhitomirsky mixed captured German photographs and new photography (often with himself as the model) with images borrowed for his vast trove of reference photos, often airbrushed together to the point that they became impossible to distinguish. With one leaflet, Choose! Like This or Like That!, Wolf shows how what appears to be a single photograph of dead Germans lying on the ground was actually a composite of seven different photographs, layered together, photographed, then retouched to create a seamless image. With others, she shows how Zhitomirsky mixed background photography with physical objects (like reproduced letters and snapshots) in trompe-l’œil arrangements. Taking advantage of Zhitomirsky’s personal archive, Wolf can demonstrates just how impressive his work was.

How Not to Network a Nation

petersI’ve been looking to read How Not to Network a Nation by Benjamin Peters since MIT Press announced it last November, but a mixture of delays, library closings over summer, and general busyness meant that I didn’t lay hands on a copy until a few weeks ago. I’m really glad that I remembered, since it’s a wonderful book that sheds a lot of light on the development of computer networking and the internet.

Peters examines a series of failed attempts to create large-scale civilian computer networks in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, which he explains in the context of the Soviet economy and the development of cybernetics as a discipline. (Those wanting a overview of the argument can listen to his lovely interview with the New Books Network). By analyzing these Soviet proposals, Peters not only describes Soviet efforts at network-building but also sheds some light on the parallel processes going on in the United States.

Comparing the success of the Internet to the failure of the Soviet network proposals helps highlight the distinctive features of the network that ultimately developed out of the US ARPANET experiment. It also casts what Peters calls the “post-war American military-industrial-academic complex” in the unusual role of altruistic and disinterested benefactor. In contrast to the Soviet Union, where the military and its suppliers jealously guarded their power and priorities, the US government ended up funding a lot of research that – though loosely justified on the basis of military need – was more or less unrelated to specific military requirements and ended up being spread far and wide through civilian connections before it ever proved to have military significance.

How Not to Network a Nation is probably most rewarding for those with some knowledge of the Soviet economic and political system, including its perennial bureaucratic battles and black markets deals for influence and resources. (Anyone wanting to know more, for example, about the debates over how to mathematically optimize the planned economy, with or without computers, should read Francis Spufford’s well-footnoted novel Red Plenty.) Its biggest omission is any discussion of the technical features of the Soviet projects. Arguably, one of the reasons that the internet became the Internet is that it was built from architecture (particularly TCP/IP) flexible enough to span multiple thinly-connected networks with varying capabilities and purposes. That flexibility made it possible for networking to thrive even without the kind of deliberate and wide-ranging support that a large-scale, well-planned project would have required. Peters’s book, illuminating as it is, never addresses those aspects of network development.

Watching the Soviets off the Canadian Coast

David Zimmerman’s new book on the Royal Canadian Navy, Maritime Command Pacific, discusses the navy’s anxieties about the presence of Soviet trawlers or merchant ships off the Canadian Pacific coast. Maritime Command Pacific presumed that Soviet ships were undertaking intelligence activities to monitor Canadian naval and maritime air forces, military radio transmissions, and underwater cables. In wartime, they suspected the Soviet fishing fleet would be cut submarine cables, jam radio communications, lay mines, land secret agents, raid isolated shore targets, support Soviet submarine and aircraft operations, or even scuttle ships to block Canadian ports. As a result, planning for home defense in British Columbia included guards for as many as 3,000 captured Soviet seamen, and naval operations included the close surveillance of Soviet fishing vessels in the Canadian area of operations (which extended beyond Canadian territorial waters).

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref. Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref.
Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

The small size of the Canadian fleet meant that surveillance of the Soviet commercial fleet was thin at best. An example of a more involved operation was the tracing of the Soviet trawler SRT 4454. First spotted by American patrol aircraft on June 8, 1962, SRT 4454 was shadowed  over the course of two weeks first by a Canadian Neptune patrol airplane, then by the frigate Stettler, again by Canadian aircraft, and finally by the frigates New Glasgow and Jonquiere. The after action analysis of the operation included the observation that no seagulls followed the ship when it was streaming its trawl, unusual if fish were being caught; reports from the Department of Fisheries and the Pacific Oceanographic Group that the waters SRT 4454 was “fishing” were too deep to catch much of anything; and radar contact by the Neptune with what might have been a submarine nearby. Maritime Command Pacific’s final conclusion was that SRT 4454 might have been planting “underwater navigation fixing aides,” possibly in conjunction with a submerged submarine.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s book concludes in 1965, just as the Soviet fishing presence in the eastern Pacific was massively expanding (Carmel Finley’s Pacific Fisheries project has been documenting that expansion here, here, and here). The book also leaves open the question “was the Soviet fishing fleet engaged in spying or other nefarious activities?”

I’ve been looking for anyone writing about this for a while. During the Cold War, the idea that Soviet fishing vessels – as opposed to the intelligence-collecting ships that were built on trawler hulls but openly acknowledged as naval vessels – were heavily engaged in espionage or clandestine operations was widespread. The most dramatic that I’ve ever seen is in the semi-fictional future history World War 3, edited by Shelford Bidwell, in which two Soviet factory ships (the fish-processing mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet) lay mines in the Dover Straits through concealed ports beneath the waterline.

Twenty-four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’ve yet to see any new specifics, despite the range of other disclosures about Soviet military and intelligence activities. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security, but the gap is starting to look like no one has any good stories to tell – or that the stories remain so relevant to current events that they are staying deeply buried to protect sources and methods. Without any direct evidence, the best argument that the Soviets were probably using the fishing fleet for intelligence activities is that NATO nations were doing the same themselves. The US, British, and Norwegians all both 1) operated covert or clandestine intelligence-gathering ships which were disguised as civilian trawlers or merchant ships and 2) collected intelligence by placing agents on genuine civilian trawlers or cargo ships or having their crews collect information themselves.

Whether or not Soviet civilian vessels really did threaten the Canadian Pacific coast, the fear had at least one major consequence. The need for a military presence, no matter how minimal, along the less populated northern British Columbian coast was one of the reasons for creating the Canadian Rangers as a unpaid, almost unarmed (the only weapon issued was the Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle), volunteer reserve to protect the coast. The Rangers, who not only still exist but have become a significant part of Canadian military policy in the north.

Source Notes: Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War (UBC Press, 2015) discusses Canadian surveillance of Soviet ships on Pacific coast. American clandestine intelligence-gathering ships are covered in Jeffrey Richelson’s article “Task Force 157: The US Navy’s Secret Intelligence Service 1966–77” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 11 no. 1); more overt intelligence-gathering is in Wyman H. Packard’s A Century of Naval Intelligence. British use of trawlers is the topic of Richard J. Aldrich and Mason Redfearn’s “The Perfect Cover: British Intelligence, the Soviet Fleet and Distant Water Trawler Operations, 1963–1974” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 12 no. 3)

Architecture for Command

The Russian Federation’s air campaign in Syria has led to some new video of the inside of the new Russian strategic command center opened late last year in Moscow. The National Defense Management Center (Russian acronym: NTsUO) is supposed to be a combined command and control facility for all Russian military, paramilitary, and emergency services, including the nuclear deterrent. The huge command center, much of which seems suspiciously immaculate, features enormous video screens, serried ranks of computer workstations, and a circular conference table that looks like it came straight from the set of Doctor Strangelove.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang.

Most modern command centers are situated in well-protected bunkers, like NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain headquarters, or bland warehouses, like the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid, Qatar. The NTsUO, unusually, is built into an impressive heritage building on an embankment beside the Moskva River. No. 22 Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya, the former headquarters of the Soviet (and then Russian) Ground Forces, has the “stripped classical” style and gargantuan massing of the Stalinist-era building it is. Its architect, Lev Rudnev, is best known for two skyscrapers from the more baroque later stage of Stalinist neoclassicism: the Moscow State University main tower, one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters,” and the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.

Frunzenskaya Nab. 22. By (CC BY 3.0)

Frunzenskaya Nab. 22, before renovations. Photograph by (CC BY 3.0)

Of the three major military buildings in Moscow, Frunzenskaya Nab. 22 may be the nicest. The first, the M.V. Frunze Military Academy (constructed 1932–37), was a fortress-like bloc whose smooth mixture of neoclassical and modern features was marred by a mock tank on the roof and Stalin’s bombastic words – “We desire no foreign territory but will not yield one inch of our own“ – engraved on the wall (there’s a good photograph in the University of Michigan digital collection here).

The second, the People’s Commissariat of Military and Naval Affairs on Znamenka Street (1934–38), was less austere, with Italianate touches to its roofline. Historian Roger Moorhouse somewhat unkindly describes it as having “stucco walls, brutal bas reliefs of stylized tanks, and an elaborate central tower sporting red stars instead of clock faces.” (You can see several photos, from various angles, at Wikimapia).

Both buildings were clear symbolic statements of Soviet military strength. Neither was the worst architectural indignity inflicted on Moscow by the Red Army. That honor probably goes to the Red Army Theatre (1934–40) designed by Karo Halabyan, a pillared monstrosity whose floor plan traced out a red Soviet star.

Russian Army's Theatre by Vladimir OKC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Red Army Theatre. Photograph by Vladimir OKC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Although Frunzenskaya Nab. 22 was, in the words of Moscow News, ornamented “like a militaristic Christmas tree, with sculptures of helmets, swords and real-life tanks,” the building still cuts an impressive figure. A renovation seems to have added two towers in a similar style to the original building and a large glassed-in atrium complete with its own huge flat screen. The result is a command center that seems as much about sending messages by being seen as about sending messages to control operations. After all, who would put the command center for the Strategic Rocket Forces somewhere that is already ground zero in any nuclear war?

Embed from Getty Images

The atrium of the NTSuO. Getty Images.