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[infowar.de] Zur Bedeutung der Satelliten im Kampf gegen OBL
Boston Globe, , 25.9.2001, S. C1
A window on Osama's world
What satellites can - and can't - do in the hunt for America's most
By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff
High above the jagged mountain ranges of Afghanistan, eyes in the sky
are peering down, searching for a shadow of America's most wanted man.
If Operation Infinite Justice were a movie thriller, a swarm of
satellites would be gathering over Osama bin Laden's suspected lairs.
The moment he stepped out of one of his caves, a camera would zoom in,
capturing a fuzzy image of his turban, beard, and dark, distinctive
eyes. The alert would go out - ''target identified!'' - and the
commandos would come.
But in the real-life effort to capture a man in a country cut off from
our intelligence, military analysts say US spy satellites, powerful
weapons hidden by a veil of official secrecy, will not play the role the
public might expect. Imaging satellites are able to provide stunning
detail about the world that bin Laden lives in - helping pilots to train
for missions in realistic flight simulators - but they do not have the
resolution to identify an individual, and they move too fast to follow
someone on the ground.
''Everything you learned about spy satellites from `Enemy of the State'
is wrong,'' said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a national
security consulting firm. He was referring to the 1998 film in which
federal agents use satellites to track minute details of star Will
In the war that President Bush described last week, aimed at eradicating
shadowy global movements, information replaces sheer troop strength as
the new high ground, and high technology is a vital weapon in seizing
it. Analysts say spy satellites, one of the proudest accomplishments of
the US intelligence agencies, illustrate the kind of advantages, and
frustrations, the country can hope for on this new battlefield.
''They are very, very good,'' said William E. Burrows, a contributing
editor of Air & Space magazine and author of ''By Any Means Necessary,''
a new book about intelligence missions. ''But they can't read a man's
At the dawn of the space reconnaissance age, the dream of engineers was
to develop spying technology so good that it could read Pravda over
someone's shoulder. Above all, designers wanted ''spatial resolution,''
the ability to make out smaller and smaller features. Poring over these
images, the military could then estimate the capabilities of a new
Soviet tank, submarine, or nuclear-tipped missile.
In concept, an imaging satellite is simple: It's just a space-based
telescope that points at the Earth instead of the stars. The satellites
the United States built to do this, still shrouded in secrecy, are among
the great unsung technical achievements of the Cold War.
But an explosion of civilian imaging satellites in recent years is
providing some hints of both the promise and the daunting challenges of
spying from space.
Two years ago this month, a consortium of private investors, including
Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, launched the world's most accurate
commercial imaging satellite, giving members of the public the ability
to see objects as small as about 3 feet across any place on the planet.
Space Imaging, the company that controls the Ikonos satellite, has been
eager to show what it can do. Last month, it provided aerial views of
CBS's secret Survivor camp in Africa, right down to its Masai-style
thatched huts, from 423 miles above the planet's surface. Ikonos also
provided many images of the World Trade Center used by the media in the
days after the attack.
Ikonos and other imaging satellites are extremely delicate machines. The
most important optical element is a large, curved mirror that takes in
the light and precisely focuses it. Even a small imperfection in the
mirror would send the light astray, ruining the images. If the mirror in
Ikonos, the commercial craft, were 100 miles in diameter, the largest
bump would be no larger than 1/800 of an inch, according to Space
Military craft, referred to as Keyholes, are thought to have a
resolution several times better than the Ikonos - on the order of
several inches rather than several feet. This means that the mirror must
be built and polished to even more demanding specifications.
To target a tank from hundreds of miles up also takes finely tuned
navigating and extraordinary sensitivity in what is called ''attitude
control,'' the direction the craft is pointing. Using Global Position
Systems, the Ikonos is able to calculate its position in the sky to
within about 10 feet, according to Space Imaging.
Impressive as it sounds, the wars in Iraq and Kosovo revealed weaknesses
in the obsession with resolution. In the Gulf War in 1991, Keyholes and
radar imaging ''Lacrosse'' satellites gave the United States an
unprecedented ability to accurately locate targets on the ground for
destruction. But the satellites were not as good at giving a broad
picture of a battlefield - they were designed more to examine one tank
than to survey a large number of tanks on a plain.
And commanders complained about the time it took to get new images once
a raid had been staged, Pike said, making it hard to plan the next
The systems on the ground that interpret the satellite images were
designed for painstaking analysis of a new Soviet factory, not speedy
information about a changing battlefield. The technology it used came
before the revolution in cheap data storage and movement.
''During the Carter administration, if you wanted to move a gigabyte
file, it was easier to use couriers,'' said Pike.
The Kosovo conflict revealed other weaknesses. The Serbs made extensive
use of painted plywood decoys, drawing satellite-guided attacks on
useless targets. The intelligence services also failed to catch evidence
of genocide - mass graves, clearly visible in satellite images - because
they were not looking.
>From these hard lessons have come changes. An imaging satellite launched in May 1999, was put into a higher orbit than previous ones, indicating that the government is willing to sacrifice some resolution in favor of wider field views, said Ted Molczan, an amateur astronomer who tracks satellites.
The government has also put more resources into improving the way
satellite information is processed and interpreted, Pike and other
intelligence analysts said.
And while previous spy satellites have generated black and white images,
the next generation will probably create color images, which would
sacrifice some resolution but make it possible to discover what kind of
material - plywood versus steel for example - a target is made out of.
The government has taken a great interest in the color images created by
commercial satellites. The government is purchasing color images from
the Ikonos craft, and they will be used in Operation Infinite Justice,
according to Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security
Archive in Washington, D.C.
More commercial imaging satellites are planned, including one, called
OrbView-4, scheduled to be launched on Friday. It will have the ability
to distinguish many more colors of light. These images are of great
value to all kinds of customers - from farmers who can use them to gauge
the health of their crops to civil engineers who need accurate surveys
And they also have military value.
''Without going into specifics, we do have a strong interest in the use
of commercial imagery,'' said David H. Burpee, director of public
affairs for the National Imaging and Mapping Agency, an agency charged
with gathering, processing, and disseminating spy satellite images for
He said the commercial images were especially useful for taking pictures
of lower priority sites and for their color images.
''I'd imagine they will be giving contracts to produce a picture of
these sites [in Afghanistan] every time they are overhead,'' said
Richelson, who is not privy to intelligence gathering plans but is the
author of a book about the CIA's technical research and is considered
one of the nation's top specialists on spy satellites.
If the United States chooses a conventional attack on the Taliban, the
Afghan city of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in the south, would likely
be one of the top targets. As was done in Desert Storm, satellites would
be used to locate airstrips. communications towers, and other vital
infrastructure. With little industrial base after many years of war,
however, the city is not what analysts call ''target rich.''
In this elusive environment, imaging satellites have another weakness
dictated by simple physics. They are put into relatively low orbits, so
that they are close to the Earth, but this brings two military
limitations: They are easy to see at night, when they look like a moving
star, and they go by quickly. Because the orbits are well known, anyone
with access to the Internet can calculate when a satellite will be
overhead and hide anything they don't want to show up, said Molczan.
That is how India is thought to have hidden its preparations for an
underground nuclear test in 1998.
Afghanistan poses special problems because of its rugged terrain. Tall
mountains cast long shadows, and anything in shadow will not show up in
an optical image - only in radar, which is less accurate.
And no matter how good a satellite is, it is of no use finding someone
who is hiding in a system of caves and tunnels, as some believe bin
Laden is doing.
Ultimately, technology can help the cause of terrorists by making
communications easier and giving them more powerful weapons, but Ann
Florini, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington,
D.C., predicts that spy satellites and other technology can do more to
help defeat them by making the world more ''transparent.''
Their money can be tracked. Their communications can be intercepted.
Their training camps can be discovered. If nations can cooperate, she
said, there will be fewer shadows in which to hide.
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