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Titan Rocket Blasts Off, Carrying Top Secret Cargo

Aired October 5, 2001 - 17:20   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: At this time, I want to go to Atlanta, change gears a little bit. CNN's Ann Kellan watching a rather interesting liftoff in California. This is the liftoff of a Titan-4 rocket carrying a very special cargo. It is classified, considered top secret, but what we believe is that this is a spy satellite.

There you are, Ann. Hello to you.

ANN KELLAN, CNN SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT: Hello. It's a liftoff about to take place. Let's take a look.

That's a Titan 4B rocket with a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Organization, that's how we know there is a secret launch. And it's looking good.

Now, the rockets on either side should eventually burn off, and then that rocket core in the middle will take it into two stages. There will be one burn and another. And we should know in about eight to 10 minutes whether or not it reaches its orbit.

That was a Titan 4B rocket sending a secret payload into space. We know it's a secret payload because it was commissioned by the National Reconnaissance Organization. And based on the fact that it's leaving Vandenberg Air Force base, and when it's going, intelligence experts tell us that possibly on board are imaging satellites.

Now, those satellites could possibly be taking a wide -- more wide angle view of the area, or it could be a KH-11, what they call a keyhole satellite, and that takes a very detailed view -- more than commercial satellites can give you now.

But, if you -- what you are seeing here is the stages of the rocket, and I can probably explain to you what's happening right now, as we speak.

HEMMER: Hey, Anne?

KELLAN: So far, we hear the launch is going well from mission control. These are the solid rocket motors that will burn off and fall away first, and then this core here will be divided into two. First off, this will burn off, and once that burns off, that will fire up the second half of the core. And once that happens, if we can scroll back down a little bit, you can see the payload, which is a little bit more above. The payload is up here, and what happens after it gets through the atmosphere, this breaks apart, falls off, exposes the satellite, and then it is released into the correct orbit. And again, we should know in about eight to 10 minutes whether it reaches the orbit and is a success -- Bill?

HEMMER: All right, Anne. I want you to stand by there. I've got a number of questions about this rocket, its history and its operation as well. Quick break here, back with more in a moment.


HEMMER: All right, as promised, we're going to go back to Ann Kellan and pick her brain just a little bit about this rocket. A number of questions here, Ann -- I don't know how many we can get to, but once that rocket is in orbit, how long before it's functional?

KELLAN: Like I said, eight to nine minutes, it should be in orbit. Whether and when it's functional, we won't know. Again, this is top secret. National Reconnaissance Office is putting this into orbit. They don't want anybody to know what orbit it's in, what instruments are on board. Intelligence experts, just are guessing, that there are possibly imaging satellites on board that can take very detailed pictures and views of various parts of the world.

HEMMER: You say very detailed, Ann? How close? How good?

KELLAN: Well, military satellites these days can discern something as small as 6 inches on the ground. That may not be able to see, let's say, the letters and numbers on a license plate, for example, but it can tell there is an object there. And there are experts now that can read these images so well, that they pretty well can tell what an object is.

HEMMER: And quickly, we have seen failures for this type of rocket before. What's the success rate?

KELLAN: Well, the Titan 4B rocket has had 33 launches. Lockheed Martin makes this rocket, and they only send military satellites into space. They've had three failures. The one you're seeing here was in August of 1998. That was a short circuit in the guidance system, and that's dramatic. But three out of 33 failures, they consider that not bad. And as you can see today, today's looks like -- and we're keeping our fingers crossed -- that it was a success.

HEMMER: Ann, thanks. Ann Kellan there in Atlanta on the Titan 4 liftoff from a short time ago. Again, the information we have at this time, Ann, thanks to you.

The information we have at this time, classified mission, not a whole lot of information given out. But just the very fact that we do not know much about it would lend one to believe that, indeed, it is a top secret operation, as Ann indicated. That satellite images orbiting the earth right now can be so incredibly detailed, picking up things as small as 6 inches in length.

For more on this and gathering intelligence in space, back to Atlanta and Joie Chen now -- Joie.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Bill. The satellite Ann Kellan was just telling about is a military satellite, which we emphasize. It can see down to very small detail, inches, as Ann has pointed out, on the ground. Sort of like seeing something from the "Patriot Games" movie, in which satellite technology can help focus an attack and then blow the enemy away. You remember the scenes from that movie.

Satellite pictures help to build an image of potential and possible targets. Take a look at this map. This is one of 15 bases in Afghanistan run by the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda. And the map was constructed using several satellite images, as well as other intelligence. It was done by a group called John Pike from that organization joins us now.

John, help us understand. You're taking a look behind you here at a satellite picture, or a picture shot by the satellite. Help us understand how much detail intelligence people can get out of these things.

JOHN PIKE, DIRECTOR, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: Well, the type of detail we've getting in a wide-area shot, such as this, can enable you to see that the city of Kabul is over here, housing areas. And far over on the edge, you can barely make it out, the airport, which, unfortunately, is within mortar range of the downtown. So this is probably one area that the U.S. military would want to stay away from, to avoid an ambush.

CHEN: Let's get closer in there, to the shot of the Kabul Airport. This is also a satellite image. If you can point some of the details out to us from the satellite image of the airport.

That aircraft there, is that likely to be some sort of fighter aircraft, or what?

PIKE: Well, we can see, down here at the bottom, a jumble of what are obviously commercial aircraft. A couple of other transport aircraft over here -- seem to be a little more operational, because they're out by themselves. Some of these may be passenger planes. Some of them may be specially modified cargo planes that the Taliban has been using to drop bombs.

What we don't see evident, in this picture, at least, are some of their fighter aircraft. But we have seen imagery of other airfields, where they do have some MIG-21s.

CHEN: The satellite images -- and you're getting these from space imaging -- but the satellite images can also give you an idea of activities far away from a place like Kabul, and more the outlying areas of Afghanistan. If we could take a look now at some of the troop movement activity that you are able to see, show us what this is. Explain this to us.

PIKE: A little difficult with one image of this resolution to tell what we are looking at. This appears to be a line of soldiers, commandos, terrorists marching along the road here. And unfortunately, with one image of this resolution you really can't be sure. If we had imagery from that classified keyhole satellite that was launched a few minutes ago, we might be able to tell. Or if we had another image of this type a day later and there was no one there, then you would say, "This is an area with troop activity. This is an area that you might want to send some special operations troops in to capture them, to question them, try to get Bin Laden's unlisted phone number.

CHEN: If we were going show our audience the big wider picture, even on something like this, it would give us an idea, John. about the difficulty of the terrain and the movements. How important -- how useful is it to military operations and planning have the images?

PIKE: Imagery like this and the much better imagery that the classified systems give are absolutely essential for mission planning, mission rehearsal, detecting targets. With the commandos going in, knowing exactly what sort of buildings they are going to be taking down. It's not going to be decisive. Ultimately that is going to require soldiers with guns, pointing them at enemies on the ground. But they aren't going to do that until they have the imagery to know where the enemy is.

CHEN: You just can't get past that human element of it, can you? John Pike. His organization is and we are going to hear from you more later on as well. John Pike, thanks very much. Now we return to Bill in New York. Bill?

HEMMER: All right, Joie. Love that technology. Let's talk a bit more about it and also possible military movements with Major General John Shepperd. He is retired from the U.S. Air Force, now a CNN military analyst. From Washington, with us now. Major General, good to see you again.


HEMMER: You were just listening to the technology we talked about, the satellite imaging. Do you want to add to that?

SHEPPERD: Yes, I do. The first space war was the Gulf War. That's where we really came into our own with space technology. Now it's essential to everything we do. Not only for reconnaissance and pictures, but for weather, for communications. Space is really part of everything we do right now. And what you just saw was essential to military operations.

HEMMER: It's amazing. Just in the past two years, they talk about how much better and more precise that technology can get. We want to go from space now, Major General, back down to the earth. I want to talk about some comments that Donald Rumsfeld made yesterday while touring the Middle East. He said there is a possibility -- and this was hinted at in certain theories -- there's a possibility that to get the humanitarian food aid in first, there may be some preemptive strikes to hit some surface-to-air locations on the ground in Afghanistan.

Give us a better idea of what we're talking about. How lethal, how dangerous is that on the ground for these surface-to-air devices.

SHEPPERD: The surface-to-air missiles, Bill, are very, very dangerous. You cannot operate a humanitarian airlift until you take those missiles out. You have three types of missile. The high altitude surface-to-air radar-controlled missiles, the medium altitude, and then the infrared missiles. All of them are dangerous, and you must get the radar-guided missiles out of the way before you can send airplanes in to drop food on the ground. Food is a weapon and weapons are used against us to keep from dropping that food.

HEMMER: We don't know if this is the course of action. But if indeed it is, will you drop food first and held off on military action until later? What do you think of that strategy right now, as you view it?

SHEPPERD: I think it's a brilliant strategy. We want to make sure that people know we are feeding the people of Afghanistan. Humanitarian actions are absolutely a part of all of our military actions. This is not a war against the people of Afghanistan. We want to feed them, we want take care of them. We will take great risks to do that. But to do it, we have to take some military action and make it safe for our airplanes and pilots to deliver that food.

HEMMER: Part of the message you're talking about also goes hand- in-hand with the P.R. message as well. How do you get that out from the military standpoint to other people in the region that the U.S. -- the effort here is to help the people on the ground first?

SHEPPERD: Several ways. One of them is to drop leaflets on the people in that area telling them what is going on. Another one is through our diplomacy. Diplomacy is key in this war, and the diplomacy so far has been absolutely masterful. It is tied hand in hand with military operations. You can't have one without the other. It goes up and down throughout the military campaign. I'm very impressed with what's taken place so far, Bill.

HEMMER: I've heard about food drops. They've also talked about transistor radio drops. Do you see that as likely also?

SHEPPERD: I absolutely do. You want the people on the ground to know what you're doing and to have hope in what you're doing. Sometimes you drop radios so they can listen. Sometimes you broadcast from airborne and ground platforms, but you want them to know and the word to get out. Humans are very, very fragile, but they're also very, very smart. And the word spreads very quickly in these humanitarian operations, where the food is and how to get it.

HEMMER: And certainly the biggest question: the administration seems very patient at this point. When could it start at this point?

SHEPPERD: Bill, it could start anytime. It could have started within hours of the original terrorist acts. However, I'm so pleased to see the tack we are taking, to think this out. To make sure that when we go in with military force, it is sighted against the right targets for the right reasons. The people on the receiving end of these should be very, very worried. The longer we take, the more they should fear.

HEMMER: You seem to say there's no hurry at this point.

SHEPPERD: There is no hurry. When we do it, we're going to do it right. And we're going to do it at times and places of our choosing. And all of us are focusing on Afghanistan. It may be much wider in many other places.

HEMMER: Got it. Come on back. Major General Don Shepperd. We'll talk again, OK? Appreciate your time now.




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