Sunday, July 8, 2007

IMINT & Google Earth

One of the most fascinating applications available on the internet is Google Earth, an open-source satellite imagery browser allowing the user to navigate to any point in the globe and view satellite or overhead imagery of that location. Many kinds of analysis can be performed using Google Earth, but unfortunately the program needs a little work before any significant military analysis can be conducted.

There are three main issues with using Google Earth as an analysis tool for military intelligence information: resolution, timeliness, and coverage.

The first issue is one of resolution. There are varying levels of resolution to be found in Google Earth. Most of the lower resolution areas have a resolution of 15 meters. SPOT imagery has been incorporated in some areas, such as France, bringing the resolution down to the 2.5 meter mark. This is still not sufficient for any sort of analysis. For detailed analysis, resolution of at least 1 meter is necessary in order to accurately identify military equipment. Digital Globe imagery provides 0.7 meter resolution in many areas, and the highest resolution available is 1 inch, although this is only found in select areas. Some facilities such as Russian BMEW radars or SA-5 GAMMON sites can be discerned in the 15 meter imagery, but anything on a smaller scale will go unnoticed. The reason resolution is critical is because smaller objects such as aircraft and SAM systems must be able to be identified. Apart from general layout, one of the easiest ways to do this is to simply measure the object. This is how one can tell the difference between an S-300PM and an S-300PM-1, for example. The S-300PM TELs measure in at approximately 43 feet, where the S-300PM-1 TELs are roughly 4 feet longer. Without decent enough resolution, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate measurement; shadowing, adjacent objects, and other errata cannot be adequately discerned and discounted.

The second issue is timeliness. Effective analysis of a military facility requires a comparitive analysis over a period of time to discern deployment patterns, ORBAT changes, and gather an accurate estimate of equipment on strength. The best illustration of this is an analysis of the naval ORBAT at a given port facility. At the time the image was taken, any number of vessels may be out of port and therefore not depicted. Google does sometimes update the coverage of various areas, but more often they are likely to update areas not previously visible in high-resolution. This presents an analyst with a problem, as he or she will not be able to perform comparitive analysis. Also, if the imagery visible is more than a few months old, wholesale changes in the facility's ORBAT may have occurred. For a while, Langley AFB only depicted F-15C Eagles on the flightline, when it was known that the F-22A Raptor was on-station in substantial numbers. Furthermore, current imagery depicts a barren flightline, the image being taken when the associated units were off-station while runway maintenance was being accomplished. This work was finished months ago, yet the imagery does not depict any operational aircraft on-station. All of this can cause an analyst to misrepresent a facility's ORBAT.

The final issue is coverage itself. Google Earth suffers from a lack of high-resolution data in many areas. In some areas, such as around Moscow, high-resolution coverage is relatively spotty in places, making analysis of known facilities such as Zhukovskiy flight test center impossible. If there is not adequate high-resolution coverage of an area of interest, a complete analysis of that area is impossible. To cite an example, one must only look near Engels AB in Russia. There is an S-300P SAM garrison nearby, but an analysis of the air defense picture is not possible as the lack of sufficient high-resolution data has so far precluded the location of any active or even inactive S-300P SAM sites. They are most definitely in the area, as evidenced by the presence of the garrison, but they are not visible in the available imagery. Simply assuming that they are located within the boundaries of nearby low-resolution areas is not sufficient; a few tens of kilometers of difference in site placement can result in a perceived gap existing in the air defense network where there may be no gap at all.

It should be stated that none of these constraints are meant to be construed as negative aspects of the program itself. They merely illustrate the limited usefulness of the software and the associated geospatial data in military analysis. This is not to say that military analysis cannot or should not be conducted at all, far from it. But it must be understood that the accuracy and scope of any such analysis will be limited by the constraints imposed by the program itself.

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