“National Technical Means” Leaves the Lexicon

11.01.19 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.