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Atlas H
A 1980s launch of an Atlas H rocket carrying a classified payload. Such launches were often identified publicly only by an Air Force Program number. (credit: USAF)

What’s in a number?

The Air Force Program numbering system during the Cold War

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When it comes to conducting historical research, data is relative. If almost nothing is known about an event or a topic, then even a tiny discovery can be profound—for instance, many Roman leaders are known only because their face was imprinted on a coin. But as knowledge of the event accumulates, additional information—except in rare instances—generally means less and less. This is certainly true of the history of the American military and intelligence space programs. Not too long ago even tiny amounts of information about them had substantial value. Now, after so much has been declassified, new revelations hold less and less apparent weight, even if what remains to be declassified is significant.

The program numbers were an operational necessity, and they were intended to conceal the identity of a specific payload. Nevertheless, they made it possible for people outside of the military—and presumably for the KGB as well—to track programs in a rudimentary way.

An example of this is the Air Force Program numbers that for many years were the unclassified method for designating projects. Starting in the early 1960s the Air Force began applying program number designations to both military and intelligence space programs. Many of these programs usually already had a classified designation. But for many projects it was necessary to have a designation that could also be used in unclassified environments. For instance, if an officer needed to travel, his travel orders had to state why he was traveling, and “top secret spy satellite business” might look suspicious on a travel form. So somebody invented the program numbers, which were unclassified, although the definition of what the programs were remained classified. I’ve never seen a good description of exactly when or how or why this system was initiated, but it was apparently in use by 1962 or 1963, and lasted at least until the late 1980s. The designations apparently only applied to spacecraft programs and not to spacecraft instruments, rockets, or rocket engines, although in at least one or two cases they apparently served as catch-all designations for a variety of spacecraft.

The program numbers were an operational necessity, and they were intended to conceal the identity of a specific payload. Nevertheless, they made it possible for people outside of the military—and presumably for the KGB as well—to track programs in a rudimentary way. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s the military launched classified payloads atop various rockets and used the program numbers to designate these payloads in things like unclassified launch reports. Somebody who managed to obtain copies of these launch reports could then get a sense of how many payloads of what types were being launched. The use of a new payload number could signify the debut of a new payload. People like Jeffrey Richelson, Jonathan McDowell, and the late Anthony Kenden used program numbers to try and discern what satellites the United States had launched over the years.

The Soviet Union had better resources for trying to figure out what the Americans were doing in space, including optical tracking stations that could photograph the satellites once they were in orbit. Although the use of program numbers had a downside, it was probably the least compromising method available to the military.

Starting in the 1990s the National Reconnaissance Office acknowledged that several program numbers were connected to programs that were declassified. For example, Program 162 was used to designate the early CORONA program until it was replaced by another number. This demonstrated one of the values of the system, because the number change implied a different program. But in recent years the NRO also tossed out a new mystery by declassifying sixteen program numbers that were associated with NRO programs “without identifying the specific payload.” What these are remains a mystery to those people who have tried to keep track of military and intelligence satellite launches during the Cold War. Equally puzzling is why the NRO did not declassify other numbers that independent observers have long suspected were associated with NRO programs, and which the NRO itself has revealed in some declassified documents: for instance, Program 11, which was a series of small signals intelligence satellites launched in the mid-1960s.

What follows is a list of Air Force Program numbers and the programs I believe they are associated with, as well as the source of information on their connection. It is by no means complete, but even a quick glance provides a sense of the scope of the American military and intelligence satellite effort during the Cold War. Any help in filling in this list would be appreciated.

USAF Program Numbers

AFP NumberIdentificationSource
11Sub-satellite scientific/ferretVarious (confirmed)
35Early DMSP (renamed Program 694BK)Program History
101ASamos E-1 and E-2Various (confirmed)
101BSamos E-5Various (confirmed)
102Heavy ferretsVarious (confirmed)
104NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
110KH-8 GAMBITVarious (confirmed)
141NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
162CORONA/DiscovererProgram history
201Samos E-6Program history
224ABMEWS?Mike Cassutt
239AMIDAS (renamed Program 461)Richelson, America’s Space Sent, p. 33
241ARGONNRO Declass Guide
244Tactical synchronous comsat workAF in Space, FY1966
259NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
266MidasProgram history
269CIRRUS 1Mike Cassutt
283Sub-satellite scientific/ferretRAE Table of Earth Satellites
313SDS or JUMPSEAT?Mike Cassutt
315ARevamped Samos E-6/SPARTAN
326NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
366CHALETMcDowell, Quest Vol4No. 4 (ECTR list?)
369Medium altitude comsatAF in Space, FY 1964, p. 46
405BLasercom?Mike Cassutt
417Early DMSPProgram history
435Navy navigation on ScoutAF in Space, FY 1964, p. 92
437Thor-based ASATProgram history
437APThor-based ASAT photographicProgram history
437YThor-based ASAT non-nuclear (renamed 922)AF in Space, FY1966
461MidasProgram history
465NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
467KH-9 HEXAGON (Lockheed Program 612)Richelson, America’s Secret Eyes, p. 105
472AQUACADEESTR Summary Report
475NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
477L Vela?
491NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
498J Beanstalk
498L Milstar?
494L ERCS (Minuteman comms)
505 Nike-Zeus ASAT
557NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
563STP program for shuttle launch?Mike Cassutt
572IDCSP ComsatAF in Space, FY1966
580NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
591UHF Communications experimentAF in Space, FY1966
609 Blue Scout HETS
621B Early GPS proposal
622ACORONANRO Declass Guide
623NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
623ALarge Solid Propellant MotorAF in Space, FY 1964, p. 88
624A Titan 3
624B Titan 3B Agena D
631AGemini Experiments programAF in Space, FY 1964
638VelaAF in Space, FY 1964, p. 88
647Defense Support ProgramProgram history
648 Agena D
658 AWST rumor this was SDS-II
661A Ion engine on Blue Scout suborbital
694BKEarly DMSP (renamed Program 417)Program history
698BKNon-photographic VAFB launch (incl. ferrets)VAFB Launch Reports
698BJSamos E-6VAFB Launch Reports
706ASATAF in Space, FY 1964, p. 62
720RHYOLITEESTR Summary Report
722Samos E-6NRO Declass Guide
731MISTY stealth satelliteUnconfirmed?
732NRO (Unknown)
770Non-photographic VAFB launch (incl. POPPY)VAFB Launch Reports
774NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
814Synchronous comsatAF in Space, FY 1964, p. 46
823Vela (renamed Program 638)AF in Space, FY 1964, p. 87
827CANYONESTR Summary Report
834L GPS?
843NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
846CORONANRO Declass Guide
850B OV1?
868NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
878NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
888Teal RubyVarious
917Scout-launched payload (ERCS?)Document about Scout problems, 1963
922Thor-based non-nuclear ASAT (not flown)AF in Space, FY1966
946NRO (Unknown)NRO Declass Guide
949DSP (renamed Program 647-June 1969)Program history
989ABM sub-satellite ferretsRichelson, US Intel Com 4th Ed., p. 189
1010KH-11 KENNANRichelson, America’s Secret Eyes, p. 124

Other Program Designations

Program IKH-7 GAMBITSingle doc (speculation)
Program IIEarly DMSPVarious (confirmed)
Program IIAEarly CORONAVarious (confirmed)