TIME intelligence

Cold War Tit-for-Tat 2.0

Russia's new Tu-214 reconnaissance aircraft. Oleg Belyakov

Squabbling—over who can see what—threatens a Colder War

Last week, Moscow canceled a scheduled U.S. surveillance flight over Russia, apparently to keep prying U.S. eyes from scouting out Moscow’s forces huddling along its border with Ukraine.

This week, Washington is debating whether or not to bar a new Russian spy plane, the Tu-214, from flying over U.S. territory as part of the same 22-year-old arms verification regime.

The two actions aren’t linked. In fact, some U.S. officials say Moscow’s cancellation was due to poor weather and will be rescheduled. But it’s interesting that in both nations, there seems to be a push to deny the other from flying an unarmed aircraft, designed to monitor military movements, across its home turf.

The idea sure beats secret American U-2 flights. The Soviets shot down Francis Gary Power’s U-2 over its territory in 1960, triggering an international showdown that could have led to war. The U.S. initially denied the plane’s mission, but was forced to recant when Moscow publicly revealed the plane, and Powers, to the world.

The 1992 Open Skies treaty lets sensor-laden aircraft fly over other nations with 72 hours’ notice (so that sensitive items can be shielded from view) to confirm compliance with arms-control pacts and monitor troop movements. Russia and Sweden are the only two nations that have flown such aircraft over the U.S. according to the Pentagon.

Four members of the Senate intelligence committee recently warned that Russia has built reconnaissance aircraft that will “support digital photograph equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared equipment,” and cautioned against letting them over the U.S.

“We strongly urge you to carefully evaluate the ramifications of certification on future Open Skies observation flights and consider the equities of key U.S. Government stakeholders,” said the letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, signed by Senators Dan Coats, R-Ind., Mark Warner, D-Va., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “The invasion of Crimea and Moscow’s ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine using subversive methods is sufficient enough to counsel further review, irrespective of any technical concerns that may exist.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House intelligence panel, is also concerned. “Putin’s attempt to upgrade Russia’s sensing capabilities now is particularly problematic,” he said in an Apr. 11 letter to Obama. “I have serious concerns about the technical advantages Russia would gain.”

Sounds ominous. But the treaty’s language already permits infrared devices and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar.

As for “digital photographic equipment”—when was the last time you loaded a roll of film into a camera? The U.S. government wants to do the same thing as you: “Technology advancements have made film cameras increasingly obsolete and, consequently, the United States is actively preparing for the transition to digital electro-optical sensors,” the State Department says in its assessment of the Open Skies treaty.

True, the U.S. is lagging behind the Russians in this area. “Based on current projections, the earliest the Air Force will fly an observation mission with digital cameras is the fall of 2017,” a member of the service’s International Treaty Compliance Office said last year.

Beyond that, any new capabilities have to be approved by all 34 signers of the treaty—and they must be commercially available to all of them.

The notion that one side has some technological edge that the other must thwart is what sparked the Cold War. These latest warnings, unless there is some missing element not being shared with the public, carry disturbing echoes of that time.

Knowledge beats ignorance. That’s why “trust, but verify” was Ronald Reagan’s superpower mantra. That’s even more true when trust is in short supply.

TIME Military

U.S. Special Ops Planning for Action in Globe’s ‘Dark Areas’

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Getty Images

Seeking “critical” but “non-existent” intelligence for a dozen nations

The U.S. military is always busy planning for war pretty much everywhere, but some places are tougher nuts to crack than others. That’s why the U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking “Geospatial Data on Countries of Interest for Which There is a Critical Need But Non-Existent Data.”

Just who might those countries be? According to a USSCOM announcement posted Monday, the “initial dataset” consists of “Jordan, Djibouti, Burma, Honduras, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Burkina Faso, S. Sudan, N. Korea, and China (Guangdong).”

That sounds a story list on a cover of an old National Geographic (Guangdong—formerly known as Canton—is a province on China’s South China Sea coast. It is the most populous and richest of China’s 22 provinces, and its two leading cities, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, are among the largest and most important in the country).

“USSOCOM has a mission for Special Operations Forces (SOF) to prepare and operate in dynamic and diverse environments,” the announcement says. “Commercial sources and other government agencies have not yet gathered data and information on some countries of interest for which there is a critical need.”

The goal is to provide the U.S. military with satellite maps that chart people—and their activities—as well as topography. The Pentagon calls it “human geography.” Think of it as Google Earth on steroids.

“Contractor will provide geospatially referenced, rectified, socio-cultural data on a number of countries for which there is a critical need but non-existent data,” USSOCOM says. “Research will include, but is not limited to, data that informs customers of the countries’ ethnography, language, education, politics, religion, and economy.”

Beyond that, American commandos want to gather “locational data on infrastructure points of interest” including military installations, “GSM [cell phone] tower locations,” airfields, “companies conducting mineral/gas/resource surveys,” embassies, refugee camps, “Internet café locations” (as well as “information on owners”) and “smuggling routes” for narcotics, humans and arms. They also want to know about “VEO [violent extremist organization] sympathies versus host government/western sympathies.”

The U.S. military has long been plagued by cartographic complications. In 1983, American troops invading Grenada had to rely on photocopies of tourist maps. In 1999, an Air Force B-2 mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, instead of the nearby Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement after a string of errors, killing three Chinese.

The Special Ops command plans on expanding an existing contract for the data with GeoEye Analytics Inc., a subsidiary of DigitalGlobe, Inc. (the same folks who recently located a fake Iranian aircraft carrier for the U.S. Navy, who launched a crowdsourcing effort to find missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and who provide satellite imagery to Google Maps). USSOCOM’s statement provided no information on the cost of the original contract or the modification, set to happen Mar. 31; USSOCOM officials did not respond to questions about the price.

“Supporting a wide range of defense and intelligence customers, DigitalGlobe is committed to meeting and exceeding their strategic and tactical requirements and expectations,” the Longmont, Colo.-based company says on its website. “From supporting military actions and national security to emergency management and mapping intelligence, DigitalGlobe supports national and international customers to keep their citizens safe and protect precious resources.”

The contract is sole source. “This unique satellite constellation provides high resolution imagery not available from other commercial sources,” the government says. “Digital Globe purchased their primary competitor, GeoEye, in 2013. The only other competitor is Spot Image, a consortium of foreign state-owned interests led by the French Space Agency, Centre National d ’Etudes Spatiales.” Zut alors! Can’t have that.

“For over 20 years DigitalGlobe has compiled an exclusive in-house archive of over four billion square kilometers of high quality imagery used in high-fidelity geospatial information products,” the government adds (the company is currently photographing more than 3 million square kilometers daily). “DigitalGlobe has a unique satellite constellation for collecting data in areas not available through commercial means…The human geography field is in its infancy and data is non-existent for ‘dark areas’ of the globe and of interest to SOF.”

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