Making sense of the eye in the sky.
For those who do not know about this site, it allows you to type in an address and find its location on a map. Simple enough. But the one function that tends to grab my focus has been a little tool that allows you to look at a destination from a satellite view. Using this I have been able to see my office in Ottawa, my parents' farm in southwestern Ontario, black smoke billowing upwards from a highway in Baghdad and the demarcation line between North and South Korea. Sure the pictures are crude with a limited zoom and not in real time, but neat stuff nonetheless.
Of course, satellite imagery is certainly not meant as a tool to appease procrastinating writers. The images and photos garnered from this equipment can provide significant intelligence to a military commander--provided it is analyzed correctly.
Although balloons provided aerial reconnaissance before the 20th century, it was not until the First World War that this concept began to take traction. In this conflict, the airplane and the camera were brought together to allow observers to create detailed illustrations of the scene on the ground. Before this, observers would draw a picture of the layout below. Photographic reconnaissance was then used effectively by both sides. It has been estimated that the Royal Flying Corps took roughly half a million photographs during the war, while the Germans calculated that if all of their photos were laid out side by side, it would cover an area six times the size of Germany.
During the interwar years aerial photographic technology continued to evolve, as it was determined that it could be used for civilian applications. American inventor Sherman M. Fairchild, for example, became quite successful when he used a camera he developed to map out regions across Canada and the U.S. It was also during this time that some of the first books on aerial photo interpretation were published. In 1938 German General Werner Von Fritsch noted, "The military organization with the best aerial reconnaissance will win the next war."
Although aerial photography was used extensively in World War One, it wasn't until the Second World War that the concept of interpretation was truly utilized.
According to a U.S. War Department Field Manual published in September 1944, photo interpretation could be defined as "determining the identity and physical characteristics of features of terrain, works of man, and the nature and extent of ground, sea, or air activity." This could be summarized in three key points--"(1) The art of knowing what you are looking for. (2) Identifying it when you find it. (3) Knowing the significance of it in that location." Such interpretation requires a "a suitable background of experience, technical ability, and training in the procedures involved." Finally, the manual noted that in order for this interpretation to be correct, "it is essential that the detail examined be properly understood by the interpreter and that all reliable information from other sources be accessible and utilized."
Since the Second World War there have been significant developments in the ability to capture reconnaissance photos. The advent of rockets led to the birth of satellites and imagery technology has continued to evolve. Despite this, the methods of interpretation have remained essentially the same.
In order to distinguish the various features in an aerial photo several aspects are examined. According to Natural Resources Canada, these include shapes, patterns, size, tones and colours, shadows, texture, and association and location. All of these factors are intertwined and analyzed in comparison with one another.
For 18 years Ottawa-native Tom Last was a member of the Canadian Forces. During his career he spent the majority of his time working as a satellite imagery analyst. Then-sergeant Last left the forces in 1998 and formed a company called ImStrat Corporation.
From that point on, he pretty much continued where he left off in the CF. Using commercial satellites, ImStrat began conducting satellite imagery analysis services for government and non-governmental organization clients. The company then went on to provide analysis training for military and civilians officials.
According to Last, modern analysis is based on the framework established in World War Two, but contains many more elements and layers in order to create what he calls "geospatial intelligence."
The analyst no longer simply works with a single aerial photo, but rather a photo combined with data from a variety of radar, electronic and thermal sensors. This is then combined with other forms of intelligence, such as electronic intelligence, signals intelligence or human intelligence in order to form a more complete picture.
"At the end of the day you take all of those pieces of the puzzle together and try to come up with an assessment of what activity is occurring," says Last.
Geospatial intelligence goes one step further by adding ground terrain and weather information to this picture. "Ultimately ... what [the analyst] is responsible for is providing the commander with complete situational awareness of the battlefield," says Last.
As mentioned earlier, aerial reconnaissance can be acquired through a variety of means--each with its advantages and disadvantages. There are several different types of manned aircraft that can serve this function. Probably the most famous would be the American U-2 spyplane. This aircraft was able to conduct surveillance at an altitude of 70,000 feet (21,336 m) and captured some of the most important images of the Cold War.
The other recce platform de jour has been the unmanned aerial vehicle. These remote-controlled aerial drones have earned heightened attention from government and corporate engineers alike. Compared to manned planes, UAVs have the potential to provide increased surveillance, while removing the risk of having a pilot captured. Such planes are now playing an active role in various theatres worldwide. Some provide short-range, real-time tactical surveillance to commanders while others offer long-term endurance reconnaissance. For example, the U.S. Air Force's Global Hawk high-endurance UAV can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet (19,812 m) and fly as long as 35 hours. According to the USAF, in a typical mission this UAV "can fly 1,200 miles to an area of interest and remain on station for 24 hours."
Compared to these planes, Canada's air reconnaissance is limited. In terms of manned aerial surveillance, this task falls primarily to the CP-140 Aurora. First purchased in 1980, Canada has a fleet of 18 of these aircraft. They are currently in the midst of a modernization process to improve their reconnaissance abilities. According to Last, these improvements will greatly improve the Aurora's recce abilities.
Canada's UAV fleet meanwhile is dismal. In an interview with Army Commander Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie last December he said "a higher level UAV than the current Sperwer" was one of his top procurement priorities. According to Air Force Commander Lt.-Gen. Steve Lucas in an interview in May, this aircraft was purchased on "relatively short notice" in order to meet surveillance needs in Afghanistan. Since then this fleet has been plagued with a series of problems and a number of these drones have crashed. "Ultimately, what we'd like to have in theatre is something that has more persistence ... Something that can fly a little higher, but also has the capacity to carry a good sensor package," said Lucas.
The general noted that the Air Force is working on a program to replace the Sperwer. "I'd personally like to see it before 2009 because I think the Sperwer is going to ware out sooner than later." Of the eight Sperwers originally purchased in 2003 Canada currently has a much reduced number in service (not disclosable for reasons of national security).
According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen in April, DND had apparently wanted to award a $500 million sole-sourced contract to purchase the General Atomics Predator UAV. However, the Harper cabinet scrapped the idea because it was reported that the government was already under enough criticism for sole-sourcing contracts. One industry source familiar with the project told Esprit de Corps that the cancellation of this contract has put Canada years behind in its UAV program.
If the department is going to meet General Lucas' 2009 timeframe for new UAVs they will need to get this project pushed ahead as soon as possible. By the way the research is heading, it appears DND will find no shortage of competitors. Such companies include General Atomics, Boeing, Rheinmetall Canada, and B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. among others.
Beyond planes and UAVs, satellites have been a staple item of the recce diet. Canada currently works in partnership with the U.S., U.K. and Australia for satellite surveillance. Unlike other aircraft, satellites offer intelligence officials the ability to observe an area without worry of coming in contact with any air defence systems.
Since these devices often come shrouded in confidentiality, it is difficult to determine just how powerful of an image some spy satellites can acquire, but rest assured several theories exist. Some say spy satellites are capable of reading the licence plates off of cars, while others argue that they can now read newspaper headlines. One website noted that government satellites could zoom in so far that they can see what a person is writing as they are writing it--indoors nonetheless.
Conspiracy theories aside, the only information publicly available is that of commercial satellites. There are two ways to judge the quality of a satellite image. The first is based on resolution.
For example, a satellite can be described as having a one metre resolution. According to Last, this means that you will be able to detect everything on the ground that is one metre or larger compared to the object next to it. Over the next year, Last says, several companies will be launching satellites with resolutions around 45 centimetres.
However, judging the resolution is only a part of determining an image's quality. Imagery analysts, whether the photo comes from satellites or planes, tend to base their judgments on what is called the National Imagery Interpretation Ratings Scale (NIIRS). This system ranks an image's worth between 0-9 (best). It is a subjective analysis that relies upon the experience of the analyst in order to determine various features.
For example, one analyst might see an image and determine an object is a tank--this could be rated a four. However, a more experienced analyst could examine the photo and judge through sizing and shadows, that it is not just a tank, but a T-55 tank. This would be rated a five.
"It's an accurate system and it takes a little practice in using it, but that's the usual scaling system that we use within the imagery analysis world," Last says.
Unlike UAVs and manned aircraft, commercial satellites cannot operate in real-time. The repeat cycle of every satellite is different depending on the altitude it has and the amount of collection requirements it's been assigned. As such, some have a repeat cycle of 11 days, while others can operate within 24 hours.
Despite the efforts Last's company takes to train analysts, he argues that it can take a long time before an individual is fully competent in this field. The standard course at ImStrat is roughly four months long, "but that doesn't mean that person is going to be qualified," says Last. "Normally that person after that has to be immediately employed at least for a year or two years at a workstation doing imagery analysis under the guidance of an experienced imagery analyst."
Someone wanting to become a fully qualified analyst should expect a five to six-year commitment, he says. "You will never ever stop learning ... because that's what it's all about."
Regardless of the effort that goes into ensuring imagery intelligence is as accurate as possible, you can never be sure it is 100 per cent correct. Most forces are somewhat aware of the unwanted eyes peering down at them from thousands of feet above and adjust their tactics accordingly. As such, the quest for intelligence must peer through a fog of deception and camouflage.
There are several examples of deception techniques that worked successfully over the last century to fool enemy reconnaissance. Possibly, the most famous was those engaged before D-Day. Here Allied forces assembled for German recce planes a huge force of fake soldiers, tanks, trucks and armour all poised to invade Pas de Calais, France. This was coupled with false radio traffic, spy reports and security plans. The deception worked so well that even after the invasion, German planners still thought a bigger invasion was headed for Calais.
Of course, the Germans were quite effective with their camouflage. For example, although Allied bombing destroyed the majority of Munich, the buildings that remained largely intact were some of the main headquarters of the Nazi party--including Hitler's office.
Other deception tactics can involve such things as placing a tank in front of a warehouse to make it appear as though the warehouse is storing dozens of other tanks or building false air defences.
Despite whatever professionalism and expertise an intelligence agency may have, history has proven again and again that such analysis may end up flawed. Whether it is a potential Allied invasion of Calais in World War Two or hidden stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, intelligence is ultimately nothing more than an educated guess.
"The job is analysis. That's the fundamental thing," says Last. "... It's not black and white, it's not true or false, it's possible, probable or confirm, that's the life of intelligence. There's no such thing as 'yes that is definitely what it is.'"
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|Title Annotation:||EYE ON INDUSTRY; satellite imaging and intelligence service|
|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2007|
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