In 1989 the US Army began a demonstration/validation program to develop a direct ascent kinetic energy ASAT for US forces. The main component was a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV} that would be launched by rocket booster to strike and put a hostile satellite out of service. Using Rockwell Rocketdyne as the prime contractor, the KKV, based on existing hardware, was designed, developed, integrated, and ground-tested successfully by 1997. Mission capability was to be available by 2000.
The program was initiated to attempt to preserve the monopoly of the United States on satellite reconnaissance imagery in future wars. The proliferation of relatively low-cost high-resolution satellites, including commercial designs, meant that in the future the US military could face an enemy that had access to the same quality of reconnaissance data. This would deny United States the advantage it had possessed in Iraq and Kosovo. Countries developing or selling such systems, which previously had been limited to the United States and Russia, included the Ukraine, France, United Arab Emirates, India, and China.
The nature of orbital mechanics was such that only one site was needed to be able to reach any satellite in low Earth orbit. An ASAT site located in the western United States or Pacific Ocean area would be under the command of CINC SPACE, who would launch only on order of the National Command Authority. The KE ASAT would be launched when the target came within reach (generally within an hour), then the KKV would separate from the rocket booster and make course corrections enabling it to strike the satellite and disable it, after which the KKV would re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.
The basic component was the kinetic kill vehicle that conducted terminal homing and satellite intercept. It would be launched by a Minuteman-class booster, a proven launch vehicle. The KKV was designed, developed, manufactured, and integrated under the KE/ASAT demonstration/validation program from 1990 to 1993, and ground tested under the follow-on Tactical ASAT Technologies program, which was initiated by Congress in FY93.
The rocket flew in the general direction of the satellite; the kinetic kill vehicle separated from the booster and searched for the target, having been programmed with information on the target's precise location; the seeker acquired the target and tracked it; the on-board guidance and navigation equipment issued commands to the small divert thrusters to make course corrections for the KKV; and finally a unique debris mitigation device (similar to a sail) deployed and struck the target satellite, disabling it.
The KE ASAT program enjoyed considerable progress at low cost. For a total of about $245 million, from 1989 through 1995, the kill vehicle was developed and produced using existing technology. Two advanced prototypes were ready for hover and flight testing. A proven booster would be used for the flight test series. The weapon control system also was fully developed during this time period.
There were a number of other ASAT concepts, such as space-based lasers, airborne lasers, electronic interference, direct intercept by ICBM, and destruction of satellite ground stations, but all either had serious flaws or were years in the future. In contrast, the KE ASAT has been developed from proven technology and the job could be finished, leading to an ASAT capability, within three years.
The next steps were to complete development of the on-board processor, flight qualify the seeker, conduct hardware-in-the-loop testing, and conduct a hover test in early 1997. It was also necessary to purchase initial boosters and begin the engineering work needed to integrate the kinetic kill vehicle with the booster rocket. A flight test was planned from either Vandenberg AFB, California or Kodiak Island, Alaska in FY98 to take the KKV into space, check separation of the KKV, verify operation of the seeker, and check out the operation of the weapon control system. A second flight test was planned for FY99. Production of additional kill vehicles and purchase of additional boosters would be undertaken in 1998 and 1999. As a result, by 2000, the US would have had a User Operational Evaluation System (UOES) contingency capability of 10 KE ASATs ready for use if needed, at a total cost of $205 million for the four years from FY96 through FY99. Projected funding was $30M for FY96; $50M for FY97; $80M for FY98 and $45M for FY99.