THEY ALSO SERVE WHO WATCH AND LISTEN : California Is Home to More U.S. Operational Intelligence Activities Than Any Other State: A Look Behind Those Closed Doors

C alifornia is now home for more operational intelligence activities than any other state and all but a few foreign countries. It is where all U.S. spy planes are built and nearly all have their home bases. Most of America's spy satellites are designed, constructed, launched and controlled from here, and it is here that the intelligence community listens for Soviet submarines and eavesdrops on Soviet communications. This is also the gateway for many of America's international communications, which are promptly intercepted by the highly secret National Security Agency from a listening post in Washington state.

This composite look at 24 hours in California's world of high-tech espionage is based entirely on unclassified sources: declassified government documents, transcripts of congressional hearings, and published books and news accounts.

Although details concerning the location and operations of intelligence facilities may be unfamiliar to most Americans, such information is accessible to the Soviet Union. The Soviets' aggressive technical intelligence-collection program includes high-resolution photographic satellites that pass over the United States very frequently; antenna-covered trawlers that eavesdrop on defense communications from several dozen miles offshore; roof-top antennas at their embassy in Washington, their U.N. Mission in New York and their consulate in San Francisco; and their giant listening post in Lourdes, Cuba, which monitors much of the international satellite communication entering the United States.

The Soviets have also been aided, especially in recent years, by a long list of American turncoats. The Walker family spy ring passed on to the Soviets many of the Navy's most valuable secrets concerning how the United States keeps track of the Soviet submarine force; Ronald Pelton revealed many details concerning how the National Security Agency eavesdrops on Soviet communications, and Christopher Boyce turned over highly secret details of U.S. spy satellites.

Midnight: U.S. Air Force Satellite Control Facility, Sunnyvale

A dark California night slides quietly into an early California morning. But in a massive, heavily guarded building in Sunnyvale, near San Francisco, workers are attuned to a different sense of time. Inside the baby-blue walls of the "Blue Cube," a giant, windowless structure surrounded by half a dozen large, dish-shaped antennas, sunrise was when the first rays of light broke low across the barren tundra of Russia's vast Siberia, about 14 hours earlier. And for the hundreds of security specialists following U.S. spy satellites, the day's cycle won't end until the sun sets on East Germany 12 hours hence.

For more than two decades, the Air Force Satellite Control Facility, as the Blue Cube is officially known, has been the nerve center that monitors and controls all U.S. military satellites. Reconnaissance satellites guided from mission-control centers within the Cube provide hours of live, close-up coverage of the most sensitive areas of the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. Other secret satellites, known as "ferrets," eavesdrop on Soviet telephone conversations, monitor radar transmissions and spy on missile tests.

At consoles containing up to 20 IBM computer screens, technicians follow the orbits of more than 40 operational satellites, the most secret of which have always been the reconnaissance spacecraft.

America's orbital eye, the KH-11, is a massive 15-ton spacecraft that stands taller than a six-story building. It circles the earth every 90 minutes, and like all previous photo-intelligence satellites in the Keyhole (KH) program, it travels in a north-south, or polar, orbit. This means that twice a day, once in darkness and once in light, the satellite flies over Soviet missile bases, Chinese naval ports and virtually every other place on earth. From an altitude that dips to 170 miles, the satellite transmits what amount to live, video-like pictures of its targets.

In a crisis, officers in the Blue Cube could transmit a signal through one of seven worldwide tracking stations to activate small thruster rockets on the satellite. The rockets would maneuver the spacecraft into an orbit over the target, and other signals would turn the cameras on and off. In an hour, according to one official familiar with the system, a photo could be delivered to the White House.

Also controlled from the Cube are the "ferrets" or SIGINT (for signals intelligence) satellites, which intercept vast amounts of Soviet and Chinese communications and electronic signals as well as foreign and international telecommunications. One such satellite, an enormous 30,000-pound bird code-named Magnum, was secretly carried into space by the shuttle Discovery on Jan. 24, 1985.

After astronauts released Magnum in a low earth orbit, about 150 miles high, analysts within the Blue Cube took over. The technicians in Sunnyvale fired the satellite's upper-stage rocket, propelling the spacecraft to a geostationary orbit 22,240 miles above the Equator. Once there, Magnum was put through scores of adjustments to make its orbit circular and move it into its precise "parking slot." This is probably over the Indian Ocean or Indonesia, where its giant 75-foot antennas can point toward the landmass of the Soviet Union and China. Signals collected in its membrane-thin dishes are relayed in code to the super-secret National Security Agency at Ft. Meade near Washington.

4 a.m. U.S. Naval Security Group Activity, Skaggs Island

As the first hints of daylight begin to turn the jet-black sky to a dark blue, the engineers and technicians within the Cube begin heading to lunch. Also opening up their brown bags and dropping quarters into vending machines is another group of high-tech spies enclosed in another windowless building about 50 miles north of Sunnyvale.

Located in a foggy marsh of serpentine sloughs and peat-dirt levees, this gray cement cube is surrounded by what looks like a series of mammoth, concentric wire fences reaching up to eight stories in height. The fence-like structure, nicknamed "the elephant cage," is actually an enormous antenna enclosing the thick, two-story home of the U.S. Naval Security Group Activity, Skaggs Island. A unit of the NSA, its mission is to monitor Soviet naval activity throughout the North Pacific.

After lunch, the several dozen Navy cryptologic technicians, clad in blue denim work uniforms, begin drifting back to their battered typewriters and large gray radio receivers. Once again they slip on their earphones, reach up to large black dials and begin searching through their assigned frequencies for a familiar "fist"--a Soviet Morse-code operator whose individual tap is as good as a signature. While a ship might change its radio call-sign to camouflage its identity and thus its location, an extra slow "dash" or a sloppy "e" on the telegrapher's key can be a dead giveaway. Elsewhere in the operations center automated teleprinters chatter constantly as rolls of paper layered with carbons are turned black with intercepted Soviet teletype messages.

Catching the Soviet naval broadcasts, however, is only half the problem. Frequently, it's even more important to discover the exact location of the vessel that sent the message. This is especially true with submarines, which come out of their deep hiding places only rarely and then just to send a message.

The station's "Classic Bullseye" division will attempt to pinpoint such targets as the new Soviet Typhoon-class submarine, a lethal monolith longer than the Washington Monument is high, which packs a deadly punch of 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Once a Soviet sub pops its antenna above the surface and transmits its message, the signal will strike one part of the Skaggs Island "elephant cage" antenna a thousandth of a second before it strikes the other parts. This will indicate the direction of the broadcast, and when they combine, or "triangulate," this information with similar reports from other Navy listening posts surrounding the Pacific, the Bullseye team can fix the exact location of the distant Soviet "boomer."

Information collected by Skaggs Island experts will be transmitted over a secure communications link or delivered by courier to NSA headquarters. There, in A Group, the agency's large Soviet section, the coded Russian messages will be attacked by super-fast computers while the uncoded material will be studied by analysts.

6 a.m. Vandenberg Air Force Base, Lompoc

By 6 in the morning, daylight has migrated westward from the cool flat deserts of Nevada and Arizona to the giant steel monoliths towering above the Pacific coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. At Space Launch Complex 4, a sea of chalk-colored cement slabs and tall red launch platforms, workers in hard hats are once again at work stacking sections of a Titan 34D rocket for the launch of a spy satellite.

Since August, 1960, when the first successful launch and recovery of a prototype reconnaissance satellite took place, Vandenberg has been the principal launch site for most of the nation's spy satellites. The reason is location. To reach a low polar orbit, from which they can observe virtually every place on earth once a day, the birds must be fired to the west. If launched from Cape Canaveral, they would have to travel over populated areas during the critical seconds after liftoff.

So Cape Canaveral is used to launch rockets that must, for safety, be fired to the east. The spacecraft launched there include eavesdropping and early-warning satellites, which are placed in a very high geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles above the Equator. From this perch they are able, in effect, to hover continuously over one spot on the planet.

A series of disasters has left America's spy-satellite program in crisis. For years, the United States relied on a pair of KH-11 satellites orbiting in opposite directions for its photo coverage of the world. As each satellite reached the end of its normal three-year life cycle, it would be taken out of orbit and replaced. But with the advent of the powerful space shuttle, officials decided to develop a far more sophisticated--as well as far larger and heavier--satellite known as the KH-12.

In early August, 1985, after nearly 33 months of service, one of the two orbiting KH-11s was deactivated right on schedule. Later that same month, its replacement, the last KH-11 in the series, was secured in the nose of a giant Titan 34D and readied for launch. In an earth-shattering roar, the rocket, taller than a 16-story building, lifted off the launch pad. But a minute and a half later, one of the rocket's two liquid- fuel engines unexpectedly shut down, and the $65-million spacecraft with its $800-million payload tumbled out of control and exploded over the Pacific.

Although the situation was serious, at least the remaining KH-11 appeared likely to continue operating until the fall of this year, when it was to be replaced by the KH-12 launched on the shuttle from Vandenberg. But on Jan. 28, 1986, a frigid day in northern Florida, the shuttle Challenger exploded, grounding the shuttle program and the KH-12.

Then on April 18, 1986, almost out of desperation, the last of an earlier generation of photo-intelligence satellites was launched from Vandenberg. The KH-9 spacecraft survived a mere 8 1/2 seconds before the Titan 34D, like the one before it, exploded in flame.

Further complicating the nation's space program, potentially dangerous construction flaws were discovered at Vandenberg's shuttle-launch complex.

Now, more than two years since a successful launch, and with only a few months of life remaining for the last surviving KH-11 in space, the race is on to prevent the U.S. intelligence community from going dangerously blind. After a series of tests, the Air Force thinks it has discovered and corrected the past problems affecting the Titans. The final test will only come when the rocket, one of the last six, is launched sometime in the next few months. On board, some speculate, may be a KH-11 that was once used only as an engineering test model and is now modified for actual operation in space. Others guess that this first risky flight will probably carry something less critical, such as a small electronic intelligence satellite. All agree, though, that another failure would be catastrophic.

8 a.m. National Reconnaissance Office, El Segundo

A few feet away from Interstate 405 in El Segundo, where rush-hour traffic is reaching its peak, a few people largely responsible for managing the future of the nation's spy-satellite program are pouring coffee into plastic foam cups and flipping on computer terminals. On their desks are documents bearing red classification stamps, such as "Byeman," which are themselves classified. And, in fact, these men and women work for an organization that, officially, does not exist; its very name is considered secret information.

Since creating it more than a quarter of a century ago, on Aug. 25, 1960, the federal government has never officially admitted the existence of the organization responsible for planning, managing and controlling the nation's vast spy-satellite program: the National Reconnaissance Office. "That office is still classified," said former CIA Director Stansfield Turner in an interview published in 1985. "I can't acknowledge that we have a National Reconnaissance Office--if we do have one." Nevertheless, the admiral added, "there was a debate in my day (1977-1981) about declassifying the NRO, and I sided, or eventually sided, or gave in anyway, to pressure not to declassify, and they still have not. Whereas you can talk about the NSA, you cannot talk about the NRO."

The organization's headquarters are in the Pentagon behind a set of yellow double doors equipped with a peephole and both a combination lock and a cipher lock. Behind the doors, designated simply Room 4C-956, representatives of the major intelligence agencies work with NRO officials to manage the day-to-day operation of the space-reconnaissance programs and plan for future satellites and operations. The director of the NRO has always come from the Air Force, and the deputy director was picked by the CIA. Until last year, Edward C. Aldridge wore the "black" hat as director of the NRO. Under his "white" hat, Aldridge served as undersecretary of the Air Force, the usual cover for the NRO director. Last year, however, he was promoted to Secretary of the Air Force, and it is possible that he took his "black" hat with him.

Although much of the NRO's planning takes place in Washington, it is in California that the spycraft make the long journey from rough sketch and assembly at Lockheed, TRW or one of the numerous other California defense contractors, to final launch at Vandenberg. So, a West Coast operations office was established under the cover name of Air Force Special Projects Office, located at Air Force Space Division headquarters in El Segundo.

On this day, as on most others within the West Coast offices of the NRO, one of the most important topics of discussion is, no doubt, the problems plaguing the space shuttle. There is probably no other group in the United States that was counting more on the shuttle for its future operations than the NRO, not so much as a delivery truck for its secret payloads--many apparently preferred expendable rockets--but rather as a repair mechanism and tow truck. Unlike most communications satellites, which operate in extremely high orbits, most of the photographic satellites orbit in the 100- to 300-mile range and are therefore within easy reach of the shuttle.

That means that the NRO will be able to use the shuttle to refuel and repair its $800-million-plus orbiters in space, keeping them aloft beyond the lifetime of their loads of hydrazine fuel and a few other expendable items.

11 a.m. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., Sunnyvale

By mid-morning many of the executives of the numerous defense contractors engaged in building the nation's spy satellites are deep into meetings. At Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., in the shadow of the Blue Cube in Sunnyvale, the major subject of discussion is the KH-12, the super-secret successor to the KH-11, which was built by their competitor,

TRW. To a large degree, the KH-12 is similar to another unique Lockheed satellite, the mammoth 43-foot-high Hubble Space Telescope.

But unlike the space telescope, which is designed to peer deeply into the far reaches of the universe, the KH-12 was built to look back at earth and spot objects as small as a baseball. With the aid of infrared and other sensors, it will also be able to see in darkness as well as through cloud cover. Finally, once the satellite can be refueled in orbit, the NRO will be able to maneuver the spacecraft quickly and frequently, much like a spy plane, over world hot spots on very short notice.

But building the secret satellite is only half the problem; the other is getting it off the ground. Originally the KH-12, too heavy for the Titan 34D rocket, America's largest, was scheduled to be lofted into orbit on the space shuttle from Vandenberg. Now, however, with the shuttle and the launch pad both out of commission into at least late 1988 (1992 for the launch pad), the last remaining spy-eye in space may have less than six months of life left. One partial solution discussed by Lockheed and the NRO was, once the shuttle program is restarted, to send the satellite up from Cape Canaveral instead of Vandenberg. This, however, would place the bird in an equatorial orbit, thus cutting off virtually all of the critical northern Soviet Union.

Another procedure, far more risky, would be to launch the shuttle from Cape Canaveral, sending up the satellite without fuel. This lighter liftoff would enable the shuttle to position it for a better orbit. A second shuttle would then fuel the KH-12 in space. Finally, the NRO may decide to await the first of the giant Titan 4 rockets, two stories taller than today's rockets, and with the same cargo capacity as the shuttle. They're scheduled for completion sometime in late 1988.

2 p.m. Yakima Research Station, Yakima

Two o'clock in the afternoon in California is 7 a.m. in Tokyo, and the flow and volume of international communications between the United States and the Far East is rapidly building. Most of those telephone calls, telegrams and data transfers flow into a white, 10-story dish antenna, as if captured by a giant funnel, and then into a thick cement building on an isolated tract of rolling countryside in the Carmel Valley.

Run by the Communications Satellite Corp., or COMSAT, the boxy, windowless building sits all but hidden outside the tiny town of Jamesburg, 30 miles southeast of Monterey. This small gray structure, with its giant saucer-shaped antenna, is the principal "gateway" for international communications between the United States and 26 countries in the Far East and the Pacific. The shiny white dish is pointed toward an Intelsat V satellite suspended in a geostationary orbit over the central Pacific. From that perch, it acts as a celestial relay station, transferring up to 12,000 simultaneous telephone calls in and out of the United States.

Seven hundred miles to the north another giant dish points toward the distant satellite high above the western sky. This antenna, however, does not belong to COMSAT. It is owned by the ultra-secret National Security Agency, and its job is not to transmit, only to listen. Hidden away on a basalt mesa deep within the expansive Army Firing Center in Yakima, Wash., the NSA listening post eavesdrops on virtually all international satellite communications flowing into the western half of the United States. There's a similar NSA listening post on the East Coast in an isolated valley near Sugar Grove, W.Va.

From this dusty clearing of sagebrush and cheat grass at the end of a long restricted road, the "Yakima Research Station" has been tuning in on the telephones and telegrams of Californians for more than 13 years. Technically, the whole operation is child's play for the NSA. Because the spacecraft's "footprint," or the ground area covered by the signals from the satellite, blankets virtually the entire United States, the communications can be picked up as easily in Oregon or Washington as at the Jamesburg COMSAT station.

Once captured in the listening post's giant ear, the signals are processed in the station. Here about 80 shift workers with high security clearances sift the stream of communications through computers programmed to watch for and record certain targeted telephone numbers. The task is even easier with telegrams, telex messages and other forms of digital communication where computers can be programmed to watch for individual names, words and phrases. The NSA may even have the technical capability to program computers to listen for "trigger words" from spoken telephone conversations.

AT&T; now has three domestic satellites capable of relaying a total of 11,700 simultaneous calls to ground stations all over the country, including eight in California alone. The signals can also just as easily be received by the NSA earth station in Yakima, or anywhere else for that matter, since the "footprint" of these domestic satellites covers the entire continental United States and much of the Caribbean (where the Russians listen in from Cuba). Once received, the information can be processed through the same type of equipment used in sifting through the Intelsat traffic.

3 p.m. Beale Air Force Base, Marysville

Three hours after a high-protein lunch of steak and eggs, an hour and a half after donning a space-shuttle-type pressure suit and 55 minutes after climbing into the cramped cockpit, the pilot and reconnaissance systems operator (RSO) are finally ready for takeoff. They're strapped into the fastest, highest-flying--and one of the most secret--aircraft ever built: the SR-71A "Blackbird."

Holding the brakes tight against the floor, the pilot eases forward on the throttles briefly and then, in a single motion, releases the brakes and shoves the throttles their full distance into the afterburner range. Within half a second the two J58 engines have become a white-hot blow-torch hurling the craft down the runway in front of 68,000 pounds of thrust. In 20 seconds the aircraft has become airborne, and a brief 90 minutes later it will be over its destination, the skies above Nicaragua.

For more than 20 years, Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, near Sacramento, has been the home base of the Blackbird, long the most secret spy plane in the U.S. inventory. Built by Lockheed's Skunk Works in Burbank under contract with the CIA, the first SR-71 was delivered to Beale on Jan. 7, 1966. It was the final metamorphosis of an earlier single-seat aircraft known as the A-12, which in turn was the successor to the U-2. Overall control of the program came under the National Reconnaissance Office until 1969, when the Strategic Air Command took control of all strategic reconnaissance aircraft, leaving the NRO to its growing fleet of spy satellites.

Built of a unique titanium alloy, the SR-71 is unlike any other aircraft. It can fly faster than a bullet fired from a 30.06-caliber rifle, and it can photograph 100,000 square miles of the Earth's surface in less than an hour.

Although the Blackbird has probably never deliberately overflown the Soviet Union, during the late 1960s it made frequent journeys over mainland China, mapping nearly every square foot of the country. More than 500 protests were lodged by the Chinese government. In 1971, however, partly as a peace offering to Peking in advance of President Richard M. Nixon's first visit there, the United States agreed to end the overflights. They have apparently never been resumed. More recent Blackbird missions from Beale have included overflights of Cuba to check on Soviet combat troops and armament for Russian MIGs and trips over Nicaragua, where the aircraft's deafening sonic booms have sometimes been heard several times a week.

Also home-based at Beale are two other high-flying surveillance aircraft, the U-2R and the TR-1, both long-winged descendants of the original U-2 that achieved fame when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on May Day, 1960. Far more sophisticated than its predecessor, the TR-1 is equipped with an Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System, which provides high-resolution radar "pictures" of the ground in all types of weather, and two side-looking antennas mounted in its long, cigar-shaped nose. This permits the aircraft to "see" more than 50 miles over a border.

5 p.m. U.S. Navy Submarine Base, San Diego

High off the coast of Central America, with its cargo of exposed film, the Blackbird begins to glow crimson red as it races toward Beale at more than three times the speed of sound. At about the same time, the bulbous matte-black hull of the U.S. submarine Pintado slowly slips away from its pier at San Diego and disappears, en route to the North Pacific.

Among the most hazardous espionage operations performed by the United States are the highly secret penetration missions of the Navy's Sturgeon-class fast attack submarines, such as the Pintado. For more than 20 years, submarines sailing out of San Diego on these very select operations have quietly slipped past the Soviet 12-mile limit and come dangerously close to the Russian mainland, sometimes only a few miles away.

Bearing such code names as Holystone and Bollard, the missions range from eavesdropping on high-level Russian communications to photographing missile tests, from planting listening devices on Soviet undersea cables to shadowing Soviet ballistic-missile subs as they leave their port. Other "denied area" operations occasionally involve helping agents infiltrate hostile territory. One technique, known as "wet deck," consists of bringing the sub to the surface just briefly enough to enable the agent to climb out a hatch, slip over the side and either swim to shore in frogman gear or paddle in a small rubber raft. In the other technique, "lock out," the agent exits through an air lock while the submarine is still underwater.

Several submarines engaged in these hazardous operations have been involved in undersea collisions with Soviet submarines, and one was even grounded for a time beneath the heavily guarded Soviet naval port of Vladivostok in eastern Siberia. In May, 1974, the Pintado was collecting intelligence near the Soviet naval base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula when it collided almost head-on with a Soviet Yankee-class ballistic-missile submarine. The collision smashed the Pintado's sonar equipment and damaged a torpedo tube hatch and a diving-control fin. There were no injuries, at least on the American boat, and the Pintado quickly left the area.

8 p.m. U.S. Naval Facility, Centerville Beach

On a long beach of dark sand, a dozen miles south of Eureka, the few remaining bathers watch as the summer sun is swallowed by the distant horizon. Buried in the cold sand beneath their feet are the thick black cables through which the United States secretly eavesdrops on much of the Pacific Ocean. From that beach, the cables spread out for thousands of miles, linking hundreds of giant undersea "bugs," or hydrophones, sitting deep on the floor of the ocean off the California coast. Terminus for the cables is a large, windowless building secluded on the edge of a sandstone cliff.

Code-named Colossus, this network of deep-sea microphones is part of a complex worldwide system known as SOSUS, which stands for Sound Surveillance Sys tem. Its purpose is to detect and identify the movement of Soviet submarines by picking up their distinctive sound patterns, or "signatures." This stream of sound, in addition to such other telltale indicators of submarine activity as temperature, water pressure and salinity, is then transmitted by cable to the Navy computer processing center at Centerville Beach, near Ferndale.

Colossus is just one of 36 hydrophone arrays around the world, including eight on the East and West Coasts of the United States and one code named "Sea Spider" that encircles the Hawaiian Islands, as well as processing centers at Coos Bay on the Oregon coast and Pacific Beach on the Washington coast, which are responsible for more northern SOSUS networks. Still others are positioned at various international choke points, narrow passages such as the Strait of Gibraltar and the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap.

Several years ago a SOSUS installation on the East Coast detected two Soviet Yankee-class submarines, each armed with 16 nuclear-tipped missiles, moving several hundred miles closer to the U.S. coastline from their normal patrol areas about 1,200 miles out in the Atlantic. A warning was quickly flashed to the Pentagon and Strategic Air Command Headquarters near Omaha, which looked on the Soviet action with great seriousness. Such a move would significantly reduce the critical warning time needed to launch U.S. bombers into the air in the event of a missile attack by one of the subs.

Officials eventually decided to send the Soviets a subtle, yet equally serious, protest: Five "target bases" were ordered to a heightened state of readiness and bombers were dispersed to distant air bases. The Soviets picked up the message through their routine satellite surveillance, and after a few days the subs turned around and headed back to their usual patrol areas.

10 p.m. Moffett Field, Mountain View

Once Centerville Beach picks up indicators of Soviet submarine activity from its SOSUS network, as well as such sensors as a highly secret family of ocean-surveillance satellites code-named White Cloud, it sends a message to the Navy's Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Center on Moffett Field near San Francisco. At the same time, by satellite, it contacts the Navy's sub-hunting aircraft over the Pacific.

It becomes the job of Moffett's patrol squadrons to "kill" the boat during wartime or, during peacetime, to collect as much intelligence on it as possible. For these spy missions it uses the Lockheed P-3C Orion, a four-engine turboprop aircraft that resembles the old commercial Electra, but which has a stubby electronics-packed stinger protruding from its tail.

If, during the night, one of the Soviet Union's two Yankee-class ballistic-missile subs, which normally patrol about 1,200 miles off the California coast, is discovered maneuvering eastward, one of Moffett's dozen patrol squadrons will take to the sky. Manned by a crew of 12, the Orion has a range of more than 5,500 miles and can fly for 14 1/2 hours at a time. Once it arrives at the general location identified by the various technical sensors, a crew member will hit a button on a gray computer console, releasing one of the aircraft's 48 sonobuoys. As each buoy hits the water half a mile below, it releases an antenna, and a hydrophone begins unraveling below on a long coil.

Laid out in a set pattern, these underwater microphones will transmit to the hunter the mechanical grunts and groans of the hunted deep below. This noise produces a series of squiggles on moving graph paper, and that pattern is frequently as distinctive as a fingerprint. Analysts can use the graph to find out the nationality of the sub, whether it is nuclear-powered or diesel and whether it is an attack or a ballistic-missile submarine. Other technicians aboard the Orion will take the ocean's temperature with a bathythermograph lowered from the aircraft, trying to locate the colder, denser water where the silent prowlers like to hide.

To the submarine hunters of the Orion, the opaque sea gradually becomes transparent as the sounds from the sonobuoys create merging lines on a bright green computer screen. When the lines converge, the hunt ends. The aircraft then drops to a scant 200 feet over the whitecaps for a final chase. It is here that the Orion's long gray stinger takes over, searching for minute shifts in the earth's magnetic field caused by large deposits of metal--or, in this case, a moving hull made of it. Once it determines the sub's precise position, course and speed, it can drop additional sonobuoys to form a barrier in front of the boat. During a time of hostilities, it could also release 500-pound mines, homing torpedos or even an atomic depth charge.

But on this night, as on most, the crewmembers of the Orion simply log the sub's coordinates and turn back to base, landing within sight of the midnight shift of engineers, technicians, and orbit analysts arriving for another long night next door at the Blue Cube.

AMERICA'S EYES AND EARS ON THE WEST COAST Department of Defense, Headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office Naval Security Group Activity, Imperial Beach (Coronado Island) Air Force Satellite Control Facility, Sunnyvale The nerve center from which all U.S. spy satellites are controlled and monitored. Known as the "Blue Cube," the center is operated 24 hours a day by engineers and orbital analysts who maneuver the reconnaissance satellites over key target areas. Naval Security Group Activity, Skaggs Island Giant "elephant cage"-shaped antenna operated by the Navy for the National Security Agency. It is used to pinpoint and eavesdrop on Soviet surface ships and submarines throughout the Pacific. Vandenberg Air Force Base, Lompoc The Air Force base from which all spy satellites are launched into polar orbit, from which they can observe virtually every point on Earth twice a day. Also the future home of the West Coast space shuttle, which will launch heavy spy satellites, such as Lockheed's KH-12, into polar orbit. National Reconnaissance Office, El Segundo Western headquarters of the highly secret organization that plans, directs and operates the nation's large fleet of spy satellites. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. Inc., Sunnyvale One of the nation's principal builders of spy satellites, including the KH-12, the newest and largest photo- reconnaissance satellite. Like the currently operational KH-11, the KH-12 will be able to transmit back to the United States, almost instantly, close-up TV-like images of the Soviet Union and other targets. Yakima Research Station, Yakima, Wash. A highly secret listening post run by the National Security Agency that eavesdrops on nearly all international satellite communication flowing into the western half of the United States. Beale Air Force Base, Marysville The principal U.S. air base for all SR-71, U-2R and TR-1 spy planes. From Beale the aircraft fly intelligence-collecting missions over Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries. U.S. Navy Submarine Base, San Diego One of the largest home ports for nuclear fast-attack submarines in the world. A principal mission for these boats is to hunt for and follow Soviet ballistic-missile submarines. Another objective is to penetrate Soviet territorial waters to eavesdrop on and photograph Soviet activities. U.S. Naval Facility, Centerville Beach Operates Colossus, a large network of undersea listening devices that is used to locate and keep track of Soviet ships and submarines. Moffett Field Naval Air Station, Mountain View West Coast home of the P-3C Orion aircraft that is used to hunt for and collect intelligence on Soviet submarines. In wartime their mission would be to hunt for and destroy Soviet subs.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World