CHESTER HAS MOVED!: Outing the Newest Spy Satellite

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Outing the Newest Spy Satellite

A few days ago, we reported on remarks made on the floor of the Senate by Sen John Rockefeller, criticizing a new secret acquisition as being unnecessary, too expensive, and endangering our national security. We speculated that it might be a weapon, given that it is opposed by four Democratic Senators. Today, the New York Times has outed the program as a spy satellite, meant to add to the existing capabilities of two others launched in the 1990s, under the program name "Misty." The Times then goes on to offer one hundred reasons, via various Democratic observers, why the new satellite is a bad idea. The brilliant thing in this bit of "reporting" is that no defenders of the program are going to be dumb enough to speak out in favor of the new satellite's capabilities only to see those published on the front page of the Gray Lady. They might give a lukewarm, carefully worded response in its defense, but it will likely be so cryptic about the capabilities as to make the overall statement useless. So let's examine carefully each of the arguments against the new satellite, if that is what it is, that the Senators and the New York Times make. The program is a
new $9.5 billion spy satellite system that could take photographs only in daylight hours and in clear weather, current and former government officials say.
Doesn't that sound useless? Of course the Times has made it sound as wasteful as possible right off the bat. Only in daylight and in clear weather? How could that possibly be of use? Our satellites routinely take photo montages (for lack of a better word) of a variety of places all over the globe, for an even greater variety of uses. They take infrared photos, thermal images, high res photos, and maybe even x-ray images, though I'm not sure on the last . . . doesn't plain old photos sound boring?
Outside experts said on Thursday that it was almost certainly a new spy satellite program that would duplicate existing reconnaissance capabilities. The Washington Post first reported the total cost and precise nature of the program on Saturday, saying that it was for a new generation of spy satellites being built by the National Reconnaissance Office that are designed to orbit undetected.
Fantastic! The total cost, purpose, and size of a new intelligence gathering program has been published by the Washington Post! This is great news (for our would-be enemies)!
Some current and former government officials expressed concern that the disclosure of the existence of the highly classified program might be harmful to national security. They said Congressional Republicans were questioning whether the public hints first dropped by four Senate Democrats opposed to the program, including John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, might have represented a violation of Congressional rules. Mr. Rockefeller's office said earlier in the week that the senator had consulted with security officials before making a carefully worded statement on the Senate floor that described the classified program as unnecessary and too expensive, but did not identify it further.
Whenever the lowliest Lance Corporal is given a security clearance, he is taught that talking around an issue is just as bad as talking about it. For example, if I am emailing you a document with sensitive info, and I call you on an unclassified line and say, "Hey, did you get the thing about the stuff?" this is still a violation of security for the information contained therein. Adhereing to these rules can be frustrating at times, but they apply to Senators just as they do to military officers. If one of our adversaries (hmmm China?) had been paying attention to what was going on around the bill which contained this new program -- not a farfetched proposition at all -- he can now put two and two together. So perhaps Mr. Rockefeller consulted with security officials before making his statement, but this amounts to covering his own backside, not our collective national hindquarters.
. . . critics, including Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have questioned whether any new satellite system could really evade detection by American adversaries and whether its capabilities would improve on those already in existence or in development.
Well, this is certainly a discussion we want to have in public! Thanks gents, for airing these concerns! It would be interesting to see page-view stats for the NYTimes online in Beijing today. More:
"These satellites would be irrelevant to current threats, and this money could be much better spent on the kind of human intelligence needed to penetrate closed regimes and terrorist networks," said a former government official with direct knowledge of the program. "There are already so many satellites in orbit that our adversaries already assume that just about anything done in plain sight is watched, so it's hard to believe a new satellite, even a stealthy one, could make much of a difference."
Could "former government official" be someone who has been fired? That's what I would do to someone who recommends only funding weapons and reconnaissance programs that are relevant TO OUR CURRENT THREAT. Hello! Ever hear of the folly of planning only for the past war, and not future wars? Here it is again, but instead, we only think of the current war, and not future wars. But that's only half of the idiocy of this statement. What are some of the things that an adversary might do in plain sight, for which there are no other ways to do them? The official is assuming that our adversaries are only terrorist groups, and perhaps the underground nuke programs of other countries. But how do you hide troop movements from satellites? Can a satellite not detect the presence or absence of ships in a harbor, of guards on a frontier, or of the recent activities in any of a number of locales, and then analysts can deduce from there? Perhaps the opponents of this system so readily criticize it because they are 100% convinced that the adversaries we face could have no large-scale forces that are impossible to hide from satellites? They focus on Al Qaeda, but forget China.
A compromise between the Senate and House that was approved in both chambers this week authorized spending on the program for another year. Money for the program had earlier been allocated as part of a defense appropriations bill that reflected strong support for the system among members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
If a compromise was reached, why are they complaining? And who are the Republican members who supposedly also question this program? Why are there no quotes from them, and why are they not named? If Mr. Rockefeller can out a secret satellite program, surely he can say which members of his opposing party are with him?
But Mr. Rockefeller and other Democrats on the Senate intelligence panel, including Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, said in calling attention to the issue this week that they would seek much more aggressively to scuttle the program next year.
This is great. So let me get this straight. You approved the funding for a multi-billion dollar satellite program just so that you could then demean it publicly, give away its secrets, and then not fund it next year? How much money are you spending on this program this year, since you intend to end it next year? Could you call that a waste? Why not refuse to compromise, and publicly out the satellite in the process, raise a fury with your friends in the press, then save the money from this year's program costs?
The existence of the first stealth satellite, launched under a program known as Misty . . . the first such satellite was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis in March 1990. A second Misty satellite is believed to have been launched in the late 1990's and is still in operation, current and government officials said. The program now in dispute would represent the third generation of the stealth satellite program . . .
Let's return to the opening description of the satellite, that it can only take photos "in daylight hours and clear weather." I ask you: is this a useless capability? Only if we believe our enemies are non-state actors hiding in caves, or North Korea, building nukes in underground caverns. Doesn't it seem that of all the various types of imaging and imagery our satellites are capable of producing, that high-resolution photographs are among the most basic and fundamental? Doesn't it seem that it might actually be quite useful to have high-resolution photographs of a particular piece of terrain. The natural contours and makeup of an expected battlefield can be reconnoitered over a long period of time -- say several weeks -- and can be just as useful if gathered at day as at night. I know this for certain -- I have been the recipient myself of such intelligence products. Moreover, a great deal of information can be gleaned, inferred, and deduced from careful examination of such images. The US employs entire legions of experts with PhDs in imagery, topography, geology, etc etc etc to analyze such images. Their collective salaries are miniscule compared to the loss of one American life due to an unprepared battlespace. Moreover, these images are often used to create militry maps, which is a fundamental, yet not very sexy part of any successful military operation. And maps have a half-life. Roads can be moved, new buildings put up, bridges added, marshes destroyed, fields burned, forests -- deforested. Having the ability to create an imagery update to an existing map can change entire battle plans. And this update can happen over the course of several weeks before the battle -- when weather will allow, if that is truly a concern. Sen Rockefeller and his moronic cronies seem to think that two of such satellites are enough. The span of time between launches -- let's say almost a decade, based on the article -- leaves us thinking otherwise. How degraded is the original satellite from 1990? Moreover, what level of bandwidth is it capable of using for transmission? Light-year like leaps in this area have been made since 1990. Can one satellite cover the entire surface of the earth? Can two? Wouldn't a third help? Since September 11th, we have been treated to tale after tale of the incredible decline of our human intelligence-gathering capabilities in the decades preceding. We have heard time and again that the US concentrated too much on technical means of intelligence-gathering -- to our own detriment. In this bit of news, we hear this argument again by the above "former government official": "this money could be much better spent on the kind of human intelligence needed to penetrate closed regimes and terrorist networks." Here we see the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction: reducing our technical intelligence-gathering means while the problem of our dearth of human intelligence is but merely identified and not yet fixed -- and won't be for five or so years. To those who ask, how would you have the pendulum swing, I say, why must there be a pendulum at all? Fund both and don't look back and we'll all sleep better at night. UPDATE: Nearly forgot about one of the main reasons to continue forward with these programs. If we don't our ability to produce them ever again will be severely degraded. Already, much of what NASA figured out how to do in the 1960s is lost ot its own institutional memory. We cannot let this happen to our most sophisticated and difficult to produce weaponry and technology, namely, nuclear missiles, satellites, and submarines. In the summer of 2001, I read an article in Wired magazine that discussed how difficult it is for the nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos to find new PhD candidates. I can't find the article now, and have bigger fish to fry this afternoon (Iran, Part V coming up next), but I'll link to it if a reader sees it. UPDATE 2: Thanks to Alert Reader "tequila rose" for finding a link to the above-mentioned Wired article. Looks like it was 2002, not 2001. Read it here . Excellent article.

21 Comments:

Blogger SESchutz said...

A good insight and summary, too bad you are preaching to the choir. Just an added note to the NASA statement. NASA didnt forget how to do things, they destroyed how to do things. The blueprints for the Saturn V rocket (the whole family of them the A, B, etc) were thrown away during "housecleaning" One of the reasons we don't go much further into space these days is because we can't.


keep up the good work,
seschutz

December 12, 2004 at 6:25 PM  
Blogger Mark Buehner said...

And people still wonder why the dems and their press allies arent trusted on national defense.

December 12, 2004 at 7:21 PM  
Blogger tequila rose said...

Good points about loose lips sinking ships. Perhaps this is the article referenced from Wired Magazine.

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