The Soviet Union has sent a record number of spy and early warning satellites into space in the last three months, apparently because of the outbreak of war in the Falkland Islands and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Since April 2, the day Argentina occupied the Falklands, the Soviet Union has put into orbit at least eight such satellites. The Soviets kept one spy satellite in orbit 50 days, a Soviet record, and launched another to take its place only six days after returning the first satellite to Earth.
Intelligence sources say they don't know if the Soviets are using their spy satellites to observe the British reoccupation of the Falklands, but add they don't see why the Soviets would not keep watch on the fighting even though the satellites are best suited for spying in the Northern Hemisphere. The Soviet photographic spy satellites are in orbits that bring them closest to Earth in the Northern Hemisphere and farthest away in the Southern Hemisphere, where the Falklands are located.
One source said that information on British ship movements being picked up by the Soviet spy satellites is being passed by the Soviets to Argentina. Said this source: "This is one reason the Argentines know where to look for the most vulnerable British ships, the ships that don't have defensive missiles like the Sheffield that have been sunk by Argentine air attacks."
The early warning satellites, which have infrared sensors that pick up the engine exhaust of ballistic missiles after they are fired from Earth, are strung out around the Earth 40 degrees apart so that one satellite is always looking at ballistic missile silos in the United States.
The last of these early warning satellites was launched May 20 and was named Cosmos 1367 by the Soviet Union. Cosmos 1367 filled in the last of nine planes of vision the Soviets blocked out for their early warning satellites, giving them full coverage of the globe.
However, one source said, "only seven of the nine satellites are working. One malfunctioned as it went into orbit, the other lost its radios." Even with two malfunctioning satellites, the launches have raised to a record seven the number of working Soviet early warning satellites in orbit.
Two of the Soviet satellites launched in the last two weeks are believed to be the nuclear-powered ocean-watching radar satellites of the type that caused an international furor when one fell onto northwest Canada in 1978. One of the new Soviet satellites was named Cosmos 1365 and was launched May 14, the other was named Cosmos 1372 and was launched early last week.
The Soviets resumed launching their ocean-watching radar satellites in 1980 after the 1978 accident. They launched one in 1980 and three in 1981 before putting the two new ocean-watching satellites into orbit in the last two weeks.
Intelligence sources believe the radar-equipped satellites were launched so close together to provide the Soviets with up-to-the-minute intelligence on British ship movements in the South Atlantic. These satellites are in orbits that bring them over most of the world's oceans, including a huge piece of the South Atlantic extending far beyond the Falklands.
"The only thing wrong with the timing of these launches is that there are very rough seas in the South Atlantic right now," one source said. "Rough seas can sometimes be confused for ships by the radar aboard these satellites."
The spy satellite launched April 2 by the Soviets and named Cosmos 1347 was kept in orbit until May 22, a record 50 days. Most Soviet spy satellites stay in orbit for a month and are then returned to Earth. Intelligence sources believe Cosmos 1347 was put into orbit to observe a possible invasion of Lebanon by Israel and then was kept there to keep an eye on the conflict in the Falklands. It was replaced by Cosmos 1370, which was launched May 28 and is still in orbit.