Admiral Arleigh Burke: Space Visionary

David Alan Rosenberg, PH.D., CAPT, USN (RET.)


Admiral Arleigh A. Burke is primarily known for his World War II exploits in command of destroyer divisions and squadrons in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and his role as chief of staff to Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, the commander of the fast carrier task forces in the Marianas, Leyte, Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns. But the majority of his contribution to the modern United States Navy came during his unprecedented and unmatched three two-year terms, from 17 August 1955 to 1 August 1961 as the 15th Chief of Naval Operations. These have been hidden for decades behind a thick and stubborn wall of Cold War security classification. One area that until recently was still classified were his actions in support of the Navy in space intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

The “Space Age” began in October 1957 with the surprise launch by the Soviet Union of the world’s first artificialsatellite, Sputnik. The U.S. worked hard to catch up and the Navy under CNO Burke’s leadership developed a wide array of unclassified programs like a space surveillance radar fence to track objects in orbit, a communications moon relay for bouncing signals off the moon, and communications, navigation and meteorology satellites that would become critical to supporting naval operations, and making the best use of what President John F. Kennedy would call “this new ocean.”

In April 1959, Admiral Burke proposed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that military operations involving space be moved from the recently created Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA—later D[for Defense]ARPA) to a military command: “The very indivisibility of space and the probable magnitude of prospective astronautical operations are general factors which are of increasing significance. Specifically, however, the implications of space vehicle launching, tracking and recovery operations on land, at sea and in the air, emphasize the need for the coordination of facilities and functions applicable to satellite operations, including those of the three national missile ranges. Accordingly, I propose the establishment of a single military Agency for the coordination of all facilities and functions in the field of military space operations.” He proposed the new agency be “under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” This was, in effect, the first proposal for a joint space command and in many ways was the first effort to establish what has now come into being in 2019-2020, a United States Space Force. His proposal failed because of intense opposition from the other services, especially the Air Force, but the initiative showed how Burke was thinking about solving both current inter-service competition and master future technological challenges in one act of command reorganization.

The Soviet Union was a “denied area” where military technology was being developed with little or no means to monitor new developments. Worse yet, the U.S. government worried about the USSR launching “nuclear Pearl Harbor” surprise attack. To pierce the Soviet veil of secrecy, United States was the first nation to launch a reconnaissance satellite. It is often assumed that that satellite was the Central Intelligence Agency’s Corona imagery satellite that took pictures of Soviet bases and delivered the pictures to earth by film buckets caught by Air Force planes equipped with specially designed equipment to snare their parachutes in mid-air. The fact is, however, that the first U.S. recon satellite, designed to intercept Soviet radar signals, was a 20-inch-diameter metal ball packed with electronic equipment developed by the U.S. Navy with the full knowledge and support of the Chief of Naval Operations. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) developed this electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellite in early1958 under the code name Tattletale. Tattletale is better known as Grab, for Galactic Radia-tion and Background Satellite (Tattletale’s cover mission).

The Grab concept originated in 1958 with an NRL research engineer, Reid D. Mayo, who investigated the problem of intercepting and analyzing radar signals from Soviet air defenses. While stranded in a Pennsylvania restaurant during a March blizzard, he pondered the application to space reconnaissance of crystal video technologies he had developed for submarines. Specifically, he wondered if the submarine periscope ELINT system NRL designed could be modified so that a solid -state version of this intercept system could be mounted in a 20-inch solar-powered Vanguard satellite. He penciled range calculations on a paper placemat and determined that such a system could in fact intercept Soviet radar signals up to an altitude of 600 miles. When Mayo returned to Washington, he presented his idea for ELINT collection to Howard Lorenzen, chief of NRL’s counter-measures branch and in the front rank of the nation’s electronic warfare program. Lorenzen agreed it could work and NRL continued research and development with regular reports on project to CNO’s office.

On 24 August 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the start of the Tattletale program. Two days later, in very general terms, without mention or allusion to any specific satellite or function from space, CNO Burke personally conveyed to his Deputy CNOs for Fleet Readiness and Operations, Plans and Policy, Personnel and Air his thoughts on the coming relevance of space for the fleet. He copied Admiral Jerauld Wright, commander of the Atlantic Fleet and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Harry “Don” Felt, the commander of the Pacific Command, and Admiral Herbert Hopwood, the commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Noting that “The use of satellites for Naval purposes is going to come about in a few years; also the necessity for close coordination of things pertaining to Space with other Naval functions will became increasingly important,” Burke concluded that “I think it is time for each of the Fleet Commanders and possibly CINCLANT and CINCPAC to have a Space Section in their Staffs whose main function would be to ensure that the commands are fully cognizant of all Space activities and their influence upon war planning, readiness, et cetera….There should be a system set up so these officers are kept fully cognizant of the rapidly changing Space Picture.”

On 22 June 1960, Grab I was launched into orbit. The NRL attempted four additional Grab missions in 1961 and 1962 but only one, Grab 2, launched in June 1961 was successful. In 1962, the newly formed National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) assimilated NRL’s ELINT satellite activities and continued NRL’s satellite ELINT collection by developing Poppy, Grab’s successor. At the conclusion of Grab 2’s useful lifespan in August 1962, Poppy 1 was launched on 13 December 1962. Six additional successful Poppy missions launched between June 1963 and December 1971 followed.

The National Reconnaissance Office concluded in 2005, on the occasion of the declassification of the Poppy satellite program that: “Grab and Poppy dramatically increased the capability of U.S. intelligence to acquire ELINT data deep within the Soviet Union.” Data collected provided cues to the location and capabilities of radar sites within the Soviet Union that assisted in the creation of nuclear war plans. Fulfilling Burke’s prediction that the use of satellites for Navalpurposes would come about in a few years, Poppy provided critical ocean surveillance information to Navy operational commanders that presented a more complete picture of the Soviet military threat and eventually allowed the Navy the track deployment of Soviet warships using only such ELINT data. NRO concluded “We can credit these systems with helping the U.S. win the Cold War. At the same time they extended their impact into the future as they laid the foundation for future national reconnaissance capabilities. The NRO’s 21st century SIGINT reconnaissance capabilities grew out of Grab and Poppy innovations in the 1960s and 1970s.”

It took the Navy some decades to implement Burke’s proposal that “a Space Section” be established on Fleet “Staffs whose main function would be to ensure that the commands are fully cognizant of all Space activities” but his memo was the first to argue for space specialization among uniformed Navy personnel. By the 1980s, however, carrier battle group staffs had a trained Space and Electronic Warfare Coordinator (SEWC) designated who was responsible for tracking adversary space ISR and monitoring the CVBG’s own electronic emissions. In July 2003, what is now known as the Navy’s Space Cadre was finally formed to recruit, educate, qualify, and retain a professional space cadre in order to exploit current systems and influence future system designs. By 2005 there were more than 500 plus specially trained and designated active duty officers and 250 space billets across Navy, joint and Defense Department commands. Arleigh Burke, with the April 1959 memo, is remembered as the “father” of the Space Cadre.