The San Francisco Chronicle
Intelligence analysts hunting Taliban bases and troop movements with
globe-circling satellites have significantly improved their eyesight
since the Gulf War a decade ago, experts say.
Improved high-speed computer connections can instantly flash full-color scenes to battle commanders at sea and on the ground, making satellite images far more useful today than ever before.
Technical changes have been "revolutionary," said John Pike, head of a nonprofit space and defense analysis center called GlobalSecurity.org, and a former space and weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Pentagon will not reveal how many military spy satellites are now in orbit, nor how sharp their eyes are. But Pike estimates that there may be as many as six or seven, all probably capable of resolving objects less than a foot (30 centimeters) in size.
"Ten years ago," Pike said during an interview, "analysts at intelligence centers were still using black-and-white monitors, and in Desert Storm they were sending images out one at a time to commanders on the ground by fax. Now, with distributed high-speed computer connections, those images can be moved around really fast and simultaneously to all units that need them."
Lew Franklin, a retired vice president of TRW, Inc., a major aerospace defense contractor, and an affiliate member of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, said the armed forces can also glean valuable data from commercial and other government satellite networks.
Many of these images are for sale around the world and find a wide variety of uses. The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, gathers Earth-resources data from Landsat satellites that map entire continents in wide swaths. American commercial satellites are widely used for mapping, monitoring changes in forests and croplands, and even locating large schools of tuna across oceans.
The resolution of those satellites may be as wide as 30 metersabout 100 feetbut for the armed forces that is good enough to reveal buildings, power plants and airfields. Such information is also invaluable for mapping the terrain of a land like Afghanistan where large-scale maps are known to be inaccurate.
Satellites that scan the land in infrared wavelengths can assess bomb damage, and radar-equipped satellites can penetrate clouds and desert dust storms, Franklin said.
"Weather satellites can be useful for timing attacks," he added. "It's worth remembering that people can be pinned down by the weather, too."