Widespread Blurring of Satellite Images Reveals Secret Facilities

Want to know how to make a satellite imagery analyst instantly curious about something?

Blur it out.

Google Earth occasionally does this at the request of governments that want to keep prying eyes away from some of their more sensitive military or political sites. France, for example, has asked Google to obscure all imagery of its prisons after a French gangster successfully conducted a Hollywood-inspired jailbreak involving drones, smoke bombs, and a stolen helicopter(!)—and Google has agreed to comply by the end of 2018. In similar fashion, an old Dutch law requires Dutch companies to blur their satellite images of military and royal facilities—even to the point where a satellite imagery provider once doctored an image of Volkel Air Base after it was purchased by FAS’ very own Hans Kristensen.

Yandex Maps—Russia’s foremost mapping service—has also agreed to selectively blur out specific sites beyond recognition; however, it has done so for just two countries: Israel and Turkey. The areas of these blurred sites range from large complexes—such as airfields or munitions storage bunkers—to small, nondescript buildings within city blocks.

 

 

Although blurring out specific sites is certainly unusual, it is not uncommon for satellite imagery companies to downgrade the resolution of certain sets of imagery before releasing them to viewing platforms like Yandex or Google Earth; in fact, if you trawl around the globe using these platforms, you’ll notice that different locations will be rendered in a variety of resolutions. Downtown Toronto, for example, is always visible at an extremely high resolution; looking closely, you can spot my bike parked outside my old apartment. By contrast, imagery of downtown Jerusalem is always significantly blurrier; you can just barely make out cars parked on the side of the road.

 

 

As I explained in my previous piece about geolocating Israeli Patriot batteries, a 1997 US law known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) prohibits US companies from publishing satellite imagery of Israel at a Ground Sampling Distance lower than what is commercially available. This generally means that US-based satellite companies like DigitalGlobe and viewing platforms like Google Earth won’t publish any images of Israel that are better than 2m resolution.

Foreign mapping services like Russia’s Yandex are legally not subject to the KBA, but they tend to stick to the 2m resolution rule regardless, likely for two reasons. Firstly, after 20 years the KBA standard has become somewhat institutionalized within the satellite imagery industry. And secondly, Russian companies (and the Russian state) are surely wary of doing anything to sour Russia’s critical relationship with Israel.

However, Yandex has taken a step well beyond simply downgrading its Israeli imagery, as is typical for most mapping services. Yandex itself—or perhaps its imagery provider ScanEx—has blurred out specific military installations in their entirety. Interestingly, it has done the same to Turkey, a country that benefits from no special standards and is therefore almost always shown in very high resolution.

 

 

This blurring is almost certainly the result of requests from both Israel and Turkey; it seems highly unlikely that a Russian company would undertake such a time-consuming task of its own volition. Fortunately (from an OSINT perspective), this has had the unintended effect of revealing the location and exact perimeter of every significant military facility within both countries, if one is obsessive curious enough to sift through the entire map looking for blurry patches. Matching the blurred sites to un-blurred (albeit downgraded) imagery available through Google Earth is a method of “tipping and cueing,” in which one dataset is used to inform a more detailed analysis of a second dataset.

My complete list of blurred sites in both Israel and Turkey totals over 300 distinct buildings, airfields, ports, bunkers, storage sites, bases, barracks, nuclear facilities, and random buildings—prompting several intriguing points of consideration:

  • Included in the list of Yandex’s blurred sites are at least two NATO facilities: Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) in Izmir, and Incirlik Air Base, which hosts the largest contingent of US B61 nuclear gravity bombs at any single NATO base. 


 

  • Strangely, no Russian facilities have been blurred—including its nuclear facilities, submarine bases, air bases, launch sites, or numerous foreign military bases in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, or the Middle East.
  • Although none of Russia’s permanent military installations in Syria have been blurred, almost the entirety of Syria is depicted in extremely low resolution, making it nearly impossible to utilize Yandex for analyses of Syrian imagery. By contrast, both Crimea and the entire Donbass region are visible at very high resolutions, so this blurring standard applies only selectively to Russia’s foreign adventures.
  • All four Israeli Patriot batteries that I identified using radar interference in my previous post have been blurred out, confirming that these sites do indeed have a military function.

 

 

Putting aside the geopolitical intrigue of Russia’s relations with both Israel and Turkey, Yandex’s actions are a prime example of what is known as the Streisand Effect. In 2003, Barbra Streisand attempted to sue a photographer who posted photos of her Malibu mansion online, claiming $10 million in damages and demanding that the innocuous photo be taken down. Her actions completely backfired: not only did Streisand lose the case and have to cover the defendant’s legal fees, but the attention raised by her lawsuit directed significant traffic to the photo in question. Before the lawsuit, the photo had only been viewed six times (including twice by Streisand’s lawyers); a month later, the photo had accumulated over 420,000 views—a prime example of how attempting to obscure something is actually likely to result in unwanted attention.

So too with Yandex. By complying with requests to selectively obscure military facilities, the mapping service has actually revealed their precise locations, perimeters, and potential function to anyone curious enough to find them all.

DOE Plan Would Reduce Nuclear Arsenal By Up To 40 Percent But Would Result in Few Cost Savings or Reductions In Size Of Weapons Complex

–SCIENCE GROUPS RELEASE BUDGET PLAN PUBLICLY FOR FIRST TIME–

WASHINGTON DC (July 13, 2010) – The Obama administration is planning to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as 40 percent by 2021, but also wants to spend nearly $175 billion over the next twenty years to build new facilities and to maintain and modify thousands of weapons, according to sections of an administration plan made public today by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The proposal, the “FY2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” part of the Department of Energy’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget, was drafted by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and presented to members of Congress in May.

“Nuclear weapons are now a liability, not an asset, so the plan to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile is a step in the right direction.”  said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program.

The plan calls for the United States to reduce its nuclear arsenal 30 to 40 percent from today’s total of approximately 5,000 weapons. Reductions already underway will reduce the arsenal to 4,700 weapons by the end of 2012. According to the plan, “the future NNSA infrastructure will support total stockpiles up to a range of approximately 3,000 to 3,500 [warheads],” about twice the number of warheads the New START treaty permits to be deployed on strategic forces. (For more details, see “Plan Promises Nuclear Reductions, but Few Savings,” a fact sheet prepared by FAS and UCS.)

“The 3,000 to 3,500 total warhead target is a ceiling,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Of course, the United States could reduce its arsenal to even lower levels through negotiated agreements with Russia and the other nuclear weapon states.”

The plan also includes cost estimates beyond what NNSA has previously released. It calls for the United States to spend nearly $175 billion (in then-year dollars) from 2010 to 2030 on new weapons production, testing and simulation facilities, and on modernizing and extending the life of the remaining weapons in the arsenal. That price tag does not include the cost of maintaining and operating nuclear weapons delivery systems, which are covered by the Department of Defense budget.

Given NNSA’s spotty record for meeting deadlines and budgets, experts at FAS and UCS predict that the costs are likely to be higher.

The two science groups also questioned some of NNSA’s key assumptions. For example, they questioned the need to maintain the capability to support 3,000 to 3,500 weapons, even if the number of weapons in the stockpile dropped below 1,000.

“Weapons expenditures will remain high because the plan calls for retaining a large, capable weapons complex independent of the size of the arsenal,” said Gronlund. “This could be a problem for deeper reductions that are needed since it would be possible for the United States to rapidly rebuild.”

“That calculation makes no sense,” said Kristensen. “It is like saying that today’s stockpile of about 5,000 weapons requires a complex of nearly the same size and cost as when the stockpile had 8,000 warheads. Given the size of the federal deficit, the Obama administration needs to think more clearly about how it spends the taxpayers’ money.”

Finally, the groups cautioned the Obama administration against against making extensive modifications to U.S. nuclear weapons in the future, at a time when the United States is seeking additional reductions with Russia and other nuclear weapon states and needs the support of non-nuclear countries to implement the administration’s nonproliferation agenda.

“Not only could extensive ‘improvements’ reduce the reliability of the warheads, they would send the wrong message when we are trying to get other countries to reduce their arsenals,” Gronlund said.

The “FY2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan” consists of five sections (three are unclassified):

·      FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan Summary (unclassified)

·      Annex A – FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship Plan (unclassified)

·      Annex B – FY 2011 Stockpile Management Plan (classified)

·      Annex C – FY 2011 Science, Technology, and Engineering Report on Stockpile Stewardship Criteria and Assessment of Stockpile Stewardship Program (classified), and

·      Annex D – FY 2011 Biennial Plan and Budget Assessment on the Modernization and Refurbishment of the Nuclear Security Complex (unclassified)

Analysis by Hans Kristensen.
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BIO: Hans Kristensen

BLOG: Strategic Security

HOME: Nuclear Information Project

PRESS ROOM:  News Release


New Study Examines Global Trade of Ammunition

Chapter (PDF)

WASHINGTON DC — The Small Arms Survey released its tenth annual global analysis of small arms and related issues, the “Small Arms Survey 2010: Gangs, Groups, and Guns”.

Matt Schroeder, manager of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), co-authored the chapter on the global ammunition trade.

According to the new study, the first to examine the trade in ammunition for both small arms and light weapons, the global trade in ammunition is considerably less transparent than the trade in the weapons themselves.

This edition of the Survey also reveals that:
• The USD 4.3 billion ammunition finding shows that the long-standing estimate of USD 4 billion for the total trade (including weapons, parts, and accessories) considerably undervalues recent activity.

• In 2007, 26 countries had documented exports of small arms ammunition worth more than USD 10 million.

• The trade in propellant chemicals is worth at least tens, and perhaps hundreds, of millions of US dollars each year.

• Governments procure most of their light weapons ammunition from domestic producers when possible. Therefore, international transfers of light weapons ammunition are probably a small percentage of global public procurement.

• Ammunition imported by Western countries is overwhelmingly sourced from Western companies. Public procurement data from seven Western states indicates that in recent years they have received less than four per cent of their light weapons ammunition (by value) from non-Western firms.

• In 2007 the top exporters of all small arms and light weapons (those with annual exports of at least USD 100 million), according to available customs data, were (in descending order) the United States, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Belgium, the United Kingdom, China, Switzerland, Canada, Turkey, and the Russian Federation. The top importers of all small arms and light weapons for 2007 (those with annual imports of at least USD 100 million), according to available customs data, were (in descending order) the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, and Spain.

Published by Cambridge University Press, the report is the principle source of public information and analysis on all aspects of small arms and armed violence.

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BIO:
Matt Schroeder

BLOG: Strategic Security

HOME: Arms Sales Monitoring Project

Harold Palmer Smith Jr. Elected New Chairman of the FAS Board

(WASHINGTON DC) — The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) today announced the election of its new Chairman of the Board of Directors — a technology, foreign policy, and defense expert who is a distinguished visiting scholar with the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB).

Asked about his new role at FAS, Dr. Smith said, “I very much look forward to working with our new CEO, Charles Ferguson, in guiding the Federation in the new and challenging era that lies before us.”

In addition to his work at UCB, Dr. Smith serves as an advisor to numerous governmental boards on national security policy.

“FAS will greatly benefit from Dr. Smith’s leadership to become a leading credible, authoritative, and nonpartisan organization dedicated to using scientific analysis to make the world more secure,” said Dr. Ferguson.

Previously, from 1993 – 1998, he worked for the Clinton Administration as Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs. In that role he was responsible for reducing the American and NATO arsenals of nuclear weapons, dismantling the chemical weapon stockpile, chemical and biological defense programs, and managing treaties related to strategic weapons. Dr. Smith was also responsible for implementing the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which assists the former Soviet Union in the dismantlement of their weapons.

“We are entering a new era where the intersection of science and policy will be just as critical to peace and stability as it was in 1945 when the FAS began. These will be exciting times,” said Smith.

In 1960, Dr. Smith received his Ph.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in nuclear engineering.

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