Secrecy News

“National Technical Means” Leaves the Lexicon

The venerable term “national technical means” which has long been used to refer to U.S. intelligence satellites and related capabilities is quietly dropping out of official usage.

The official DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms still included “NTM” (for “national or multinational technical means of verification”) on the list of acronyms in its May 2019 edition, as it has in the past. But by the June revision, it was gone.

A newly updated US Army Field Manual on Army Space Operations proposed a new term that it said replaces national technical means:

“National Reconnaissance Office overhead systems (known as NOS) — formerly referred to as national technical means — are spaced-based sensors designed to collect data in order to support intelligence analysis.”

Except for that new Army manual, though, there is no other indication that these assets are in fact “known as NOS.” See Army Space Operations, Field Manual (FM) 3-14, October 30, 2019.

It is not clear why the traditional term has fallen out of favor.

The use of “national technical means of verification” dates from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It was deliberately left undefined, then-Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms said in 1971, both to protect intelligence methods and to avoid offending Soviet sensibilities.

“The Soviets themselves are very anxious that it not be discussed,” said DCI Helms at that time. “They have made it clear that they are unwilling to agree explicitly to anything which would appear to some as an infringement of territorial sovereignty, a matter on which they are extremely sensitive. So we draw no more attention than is necessary to this activity.”

“There will be no misunderstanding between Washington and Moscow about what is meant [by “national technical means”]. But we’ll avoid a lot of problems by saying it that way,” Helms said.

“National technical means of verification” are still referenced in the New START Treaty, which will expire in February 2021 if not renewed.

2 thoughts on ““National Technical Means” Leaves the Lexicon

  1. Your readers may (or may not) be interested in the earlier origins of this concept.
    I am deep into it now since I am writing the chapter of my memoirs dealing with the origins of the strategic arms talks.
    Prior to the beginning of preparations for what became the strategic arms talks, the policy of the USG was that any arms control agreement had to be verified only by agreed intrusive procedures including on-site inspections. As the preparations were beginning Helms announced that the CIA would agree to monitor the agreement using its own techniques — what came to be known as national technical means and which was not limited to over-head reconnaissance. I attach the first SNIE which took this approach.

  2. NTM does not only mean NRO satellites, it includes all means of intelligence collection that are national (entirely owned by the collecting state & not requiring cooperation from others) and technical in nature, i.e. specifically not including human spies and turncoats spilling secrets.

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