Making the Military Look Irrational, Part 7,456

Gosh, scientists are mystified as to why the military would suddenly classify data they have made public for years. [h/t Instapundit] Well, I have an idea and if the scientists and the journalists had bothered to think about it from the perspective of military intelligence, they could have figured it out as well.

The public data lets a potential enemy figure out the sensitivity of the satellites and how to create countermeasures. 

The satellites look for flashes of light on the earth’s surface and atmosphere. Such flashes indicate conventional and nuclear explosions, missiles under power and projectiles reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. They also show meteors burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere, which interests scientists. 

Technical intelligence is the art of puzzling out the specifications of an opponent’s military hardware. You usually can’t get an actual sample of the hardware, so you have to puzzle out the specs by watching the hardware work. When analyzing sensor technology such as radar or optical satellites, watching the sensor work requires comparing inputs to the sensor with outputs from it. 

This is often called “black boxing” because it is like figuring out how a machine in a box that you can’t see into works, just by comparing inputs and outputs.

For example, to test the sensitivity of radar, you would fly an airplane at a known distance from the radar array and see if the plane provoked a response. Even better, you fly the airplane at a known distance and then have a spy steal the output of the radar system. You can then closely compare the known position of the airplane with the output of the radar system and figure out the radar’s capabilities. 

In the case of the flash-detecting satellites, a potential enemy doesn’t need spies to steal the output, because the military has been making them public. What the enemy has most likely lacked is an ability to create known inputs. They need their own sources of information about the position, magnitude and spectra of the flashes.

They could try creating flashes of their own, but this would be difficult and they wouldn’t know exactly what the flashes look like from space. More likely they have developed their own satellites. Since they know the sensitivity of these satellites they can compare the satellites’ output with the public data from our satellites and figure out the sensitivity of our satellites. They could also figure out which orbiting satellites are flash-detecting satellites.

The military most likely stopped sharing data because they discovered that someone else had developed or was developing satellites similar to our own. Classifying our satellites’ output would be the only way to keep a potential enemy’s technical intelligence people from reverse-engineering our satellites. 

I find it very frustrating that most journalists don’t even attempt to offer potential rational explanations for the military’s behavior. Instead, they leave the reader with the impression that the military has acted capriciously or out of irrational paranoia.

[Edit 2009-06-12 1:12pm: Corrected spelling.]

7 thoughts on “Making the Military Look Irrational, Part 7,456”

  1. > Gosh, scientist are mystified

    > I find it very frustrating that most journalist

    Is there some reason you omit the letter “s” on plural nouns half the time? Are you a native Ebonics speaker? It makes you appear totally illiterate.

  2. Passing By,

    Is there some reason you omit the letter “s” on plural nouns half the time?

    I apologize I don’t know why I do it but I’ve always done so and I can’t effectively proof read anything I’ve written unless I let it set for several days. Words ending in “ist” seem to bedevil me in particular. I suspect the problem is related to my unusually high reading speed. My brain doesn’t resolve individual words so I have trouble spotting errors caused by single misplaced characters. I do try to catch them but I’m not very good at it. I should probably write a script to check for me.

  3. Yeah, the most important aspect of this posting is the comma you missed in the 4th paragraph. Sheesh.

    Anyway, as the blogfather often says, all that matters is what fits the narrative.

    The military must be filled with bloodthirsty, unintelligient, paranoid, and racist/sexist/jingoist bozos, otherwise the conventional wisdom of decades of journalists and screenwriters and comedians might be (gasp) incorrect, and in need of reconsideration.

    And that obviously cannot be, or be allowed. After all, aren’t those latter supremely gifted groups the most intelligient and courageous and just plain wonderful people of all time?

    I mean, geez, just because some colonel or general or whatever has a master’s or doctorate in science or international relations or something doesn’t mean their actually more informed than the guy who writes the news every day, or some professor from Podunk U.

    If that were true, why, it might mean we couldn’t count on our media and academic mavens to provide us with the real scoop on what’s going on with important things like world affairs or climate change or the economy.

    Good grief. If that were the case, the world would be in a terrible mess instead of the wonderful paradise….oh, wait.

  4. At the risk of dignifying Passing By’s drive-by sniping, you do seem to be a bit less polished lately, Shannon. I’m sure that’s because you bang these posts out as fast as you can type. Frankly, I’m jealous, because I’m the sort who has to agonize over each sentence. But that’s why you’re a big-time blogger and I’m just a putz who occasionally strings together a four-sentence comment.

    I also sympathize with the proof-reading problem — instead of writing a script, have you ever considered listening to your posts with a text-to-speech program? I find that grammatical and spelling errors (excepting some homonyms) tend to stand out like sore thumbs when you’re hearing them instead of reading them. There are free web-based ones if you wanted to just try it out a few times.

  5. Shannon, have you read “The Secret History of Silicon Valley” blog? Good stuff about how Silicon Valley was bootstrapped doing sigint and countermeasures work well before the transistor was invented.

  6. ArtD0dger,

    I also sympathize with the proof-reading problem — instead of writing a script, have you ever considered listening to your posts with a text-to-speech program?

    I use the built-in text-to-speech on my mac. Unfortunately, the plurals I am least likely to catch are the ones that end in “ist” and those sound the same as their plural. “Scientist” and “scientists” sound identical.

  7. Jack Diederich,

    Shannon, have you read “The Secret History of Silicon Valley” blog?

    I haven’t read that particular book but I am generally aware of the history. Silicon Valley is located south of San Francisco because most of the smaller business got their start selling components to Hewlett-Packard. HP in turn got its start making precisions instrumentation for submarines based out of the Presidio and other naval installations in San Francisco bay.

    Just about every major industry in California, including the movie industry, got a significant boost from military spending during WWII and the Cold War. A big part of California’s manufacturing decline in the 1990’s can be traced to reduced military spending especially in aviation.

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