Cold War Satellite Aces

The Soviets and Americans planned to deploy jet fighters against spacecraft


During the 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had programs to fit multi-stage, satellite-killing rockets to high-performance jet fighters. Only the Americans managed to test their system before the Cold War ended, but the Soviets came close.

To quote the U.S. Air Force:

The ASAT missile was nearly 18 feet in length and weighed 2,700 pounds, small enough to be carried on the centerline pylon of an F-15. It consisted of a Boeing Short-Range Attack Missile first-stage motor, a Ling-Temco-Vought Corporation (LTV) Altair III second-stage motor and an LTV miniature homing vehicle.
U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo

Gregory Karambelas was part of the test team. He later told journalist Sven Grahn:

The interceptor was called the Miniature Vehicle. It was spun up to approximately 30 revolutions per second just prior to being deployed from the upper stage. It did have an infrared sensor on board. This was before the days of Charge Coupled Device arrays so it had ‘strip’ detectors on it.
I should be able to remember the composition we used. It was not your usual mercury cadmium telluride. I think it was an Indium Bismuth strip. Hughes Research Corporation, a.k.a. Santa Barbara Research Corporation, was the manufacturer.
It had four strips arranged in a square and four spiral curves. We could determine the object’s position in the focal plane by measuring the time of detections on the strips. The object detection was by a simple centroid detector as the I.R. ‘blob’ crossed the strips.
Art via Sven Grahn
Art via Sven Grahn

The ASAT underwent five tests in 1984, ’85 and ’86. Four were successful. Just one targeted an actual satellite. The Air Force again:

By September 1985, all was finally ready for a test against an orbiting satellite. On Sept. 13, Maj. Wilbert D. ‘Doug’ Pearson, the director of the F-15 ASAT Combined Test Force, took off on a crucial mission that required him to fly an extraordinarily exacting profile in order to arrive at a precise firing location at exactly the right time.
Flying at Mach 1.22 some 200 miles west of Vandenberg Air Force Base, he executed a 3.8-G pull-up to a climb angle of 65 degrees.
The missile automatically launched itself at 38,100 feet. Minutes later, orbiting peacefully 345 miles above the Pacific Ocean, an obsolete satellite named P78–1 was suddenly shattered into pieces. Pearson had become the world’s first pilot ever to shoot down a satellite.
Photo via
Photo via

In direct response, the Soviets developed their own fighter-launched satellite-killer, the Kontakt. According to

The interceptor was carried by a modified MiG-31D aircraft … A three-stage interceptor was designed to hit targets at altitudes of 120–600 kilometers (and up to 1,500 kilometer after the second stage of the project was completed). The system was supposed to attack up to 24 satellites within a 36-hour period (documents also mention 20–40 satellites in 24 hours).
The work on the Kontakt system was suspended around 1989, apparently before it reached the stage of flight tests.