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.]