- The Federation of American Scientists acquired high-resolution
satellite imagery of Area 51 -- and got a clearer picture not just of Area
51 but also of whether commercial imagery poses a security threat, writes
Federation analyst Tim Brown.
- Late last year, Space Imaging Corporation launched Ikonos,
a satellite able to image objects as small as 1 meter (3 feet) long, anywhere
on the planet. Early this year, we at the Federation of American Scientists
ordered an image of the secret military base known as Area 51. We sought
to test the capabilities and accessibility of this new technology.
- Some 10 weeks later, with the Area 51 image on our website,
we now have a clearer picture of not only the secret military base at Groom
Lake, but of the limits of "near-real-time" imagery acquisition.
- The truth about Area 51
- Historically, Area 51 is where the U 2, A 12, SR 71,
D 21 Drone and F 117 Stealth Fighter were flight-tested in secret. Area
51 is an advanced-technology flight-test center -- a "black"
version of Edwards Air Force Base. Speculation aside, the 1-meter Ikonos
image we purchased shows buildings and facilities consistent with those
at Edwards AFB.
- A new 11,900-foot (3,625-meter) runway was built after
the F 117 Stealth Fighter program became public knowledge. In 1995 the
Department of the Interior withdrew over 3,900 acres (1,578 hectares) of
public land that curiosity-seekers used to observe activity at Area 51.
These facts taken together point to ongoing flight-test activity or at
least a desire on the Air Force's part to maintain such a capability at
Area 51 for the foreseeable future.
- Imagery not a threat
- The other thing we learned from our experience purchasing
the Area 51 image was the limits that weather and tasking constraints place
on the ability to acquire "near-real-time" imagery. Almost from
the beginning of the availability of commercial satellite imagery, defense
officials and the public-policy community have voiced concerns over the
possible national security implications of commercial remote sensing.
- Some analysts have asserted that terrorists, rogue nations
or adversaries might be able to use high -resolution imagery to plan attacks
on U.S. troops or thwart U.S. military operations. Some have argued that
"shutter control" might have to be imposed -- that U.S.-government
officials would have to limit access to imagery during times when national
security or international treaties might be affected.
- Our experience with the Area 51 image shows "near-real-time"
can be a concept denominated in weeks, not days. When conditions are ideal,
an image can be tasked, collected and processed in hours, as in the case
of the Ikonos image showing tornado damage in Fort Worth, Texas. But ideal
conditions are the exception, not the norm. Over 60 percent of the world
is covered by clouds. Given the three-day revisit time between satellite
passes, it could take from several to dozens of passes to get a cloud-free
- Imagery acquired by government intelligence agencies
as reference material for their target folders is not time-sensitive. For
this application, waiting months is acceptable. But the operational or
tactical user, such as a battlefield commander, cannot wait months, or
even days, for imagery of the battlefield to be collected. Such pictures
have an extremely short shelf-life.
- Uncertainty of acquisition will be another problem for
anyone seeking to gain military advantage from commercial imagery. Will
the next image arrive on a battlefield commander's desk in a week, a month
or longer? Those who are entrusted to fight their nation's wars simply
cannot count on maybe.
- Ideal conditions are the exception, not the norm. Over
60 percent of the world is covered by clouds.
- Our experience with the Area 51 image demonstrates the
uncertainty and unreliability inherent in acquiring commercial imagery.
Such factors limit its potential utility in any future conflict. Certainly,
nations can, and already have started to, order imagery sets of their rivals'
- But should a war start, cloud cover and tasking problems
could render such imagery a curiosity. Add the mere possibility of U.S.-imposed
shutter control, and commercial high-resolution satellite imagery will
be virtually useless to foreign battlefield commanders. For the foreseeable
future, belligerent nations will not be able to rely on U.S. commercial
high-resolution satellite imagery for use in warfare.
- Weather and tasking issues pose sufficient limits on
foreign military use that U.S.-imposed shutter control will not be necessary
for some time to come. Any foreign intelligence official who promises the
local dictator a military advantage from commercial, high-resolution imagery
is taking a big, personal risk.
- Tim Brown is an imagery analyst working on the Public
Eye project at the Federation of American Scientists. He has spent the
past two years exploiting declassified Corona satellite imagery and, more
recently, has expanded his focus to the newly available 1-meter imagery
from the Ikonos satellite.
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