High, Flying Adored

The U.S. under the Warlord may be a Rogue Power; or perhaps a beefy, almost naked and sweaty mora standing at the Hot Gates; or just an incompetent Outsourcer. For sake of discussion, offer any political science (or snarky, if you prefer) template that comes to mind. Let’s just call it (noun). We’ll skip bomb threats at campaign HQs, planted questions at farcical debates or Russian withdrawal from treaties in Europe. Tonight we note that the (noun) is finally visiting the eye doctor.

I’m the NRO, and always will be

We’ve mentioned serveral times the catastrophically delusional NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) Future Imagery Architecture program and its inevitable collapse. The new NRO Director, Scott F. Large is scrambling to recover from that Charlie Fox (note the program name).

The new system, known as Basic, would be launched by 2011 and is expected to cost $2 billion to $4 billion, according to U.S. officials familiar with the program. They discussed details on condition of anonymity because the information is classified . . . Officials said the Pentagon is considering a range of options, but the new program is expected to be significantly less ambitious than the one it is meant to replace. Options include developing an entirely new photo-imagery satellite or a derivative of a commercial imagery satellite, buying a commercial satellite or leasing existing satellite capacity.

U.S. commercial satellites currently can make out the outline of a two-foot- long object from space. In April, a satellite will be launched with the ability to see a 16-inch object. By 2011, that capability is expected to narrow to nearly 10 inches.

Industry officials said the contract probably will be for a commercial or commercially derived spacecraft because of the time and budget constraints and the government’s apparent desire to maintain control of the satellite.

This minor story highlights a growing paradox for the noun’s Permanent National Security State (PNSS). The apparat always seeks its own power maximization; by definition that means developing internal solutions. Surveillance platforms — airborne and space-based — historically are the epitome of this maxim. Who else (besides the PNSS) could fund and command bending metal to push beyond the state of the art? Yet, even here, the PNSS finds the sand eroding beneath it. Its ability to develop solutions internally is in disarray. Commercial satellites are not new, the original being SPOT. But the almost holy sanctum of KeyHoles and Coronas is now busted open.

One could argue that more commercial satellite alternatives give the NRO leverage against the same failed Iron Triangle contractors. Yet, this diffusion of technology is a two edged alternative — those same capabilities are available to the unwashed. You know, news organizations, foreign powers, ad hoc groups. Perhaps one day bloggers. This is both a psychic blow to the PNSS and new operational burden.

The operational and security issues go significantly deeper than the obvious need for the U.S. to develop more multifaceted maskirovka techniques. A few years ago (say circa 2003), we had a number of conversations with senior level DARPA personnel about their growing alarm over the U.S. reliance on COTS (commercial off the shelf) or even custom chips from Asia or elsewhere. Who could vouch for the security of the design? Imagine the time it takes to understand one single chip? For example, we know the Russians didn’t bother, they just copied ours, including mistakes and test markers we placed there to verify the Russian copying. Imagery, of course, is above all a system of systems — the complexity and security aspects raised to the nth degree. And we are not just talking about hardware. Just recently, DoD started voicing concern that the U.S. is simply importing chunks of software code without the means of knowing exactly what it is. We have reason to think about it. After all, the U.S. in the 1980s slipped the Sovs defective tech and sabotaged the Siberian pipeline: big boom.

A noun’s PNSS ultimately is overcome by societal trends and designated opponents (foreign and domestic) when its internal host economy loses the capacity, means and will to maintain world class capabilities. The Soviets and their empire are the most recent examples. Are we at a tipping point? Can a society dedicated to (reckless) financial arbitrage be a (noun) for long with a functioning PNSS? History shows us no example.

Signs of twilight here would be the increasing importance of State capital to identify and fund critical technologies that are more advanced commercially elsewhere. Something to watch closely will be the tropism of these commercial vendors to NRO solicitations. The PNSS and Mil-Spec often distort market forces and technological pathways with baroque requirements. In that sense, we have had some heated exchanges with DARPA personnel in the past. The DARPA people asserted that they are identical in function and operate in the exact same way as a venture capital firm. Sadly, no. PNSS capital, no matter how creative for government it may be, can not be a replacement for market forces, particularly for the discipline of capital demanding return on investments in the neighborhood of 30%. And often sitting on the board and owning a major portion of equity. (The less said about the Agency’s foray to seeking cultural pollution pollination *from* Silicon Valley the better).

Noun at least is getting an eye exam. We’ve been looking at the world askew in more ways than one the last few years. Here’s to hoping that, to quote Buck Turgidson, “it would be unfair to condemn the entire program because of a single slip up.”


  1. Robert Sneddon says

    Re: Chile and its position during the Falklands War.

    There was the notable incident of an empty British forces Sea King coming down in Chile during the conflict. The Chileans treated the incident quite lightly, confiscating the helicopter but repatriating the crew who claimed to have been lost.

    I always figured this was the result of an insertion of a Special Forces team into Argentina, on a one-way flight since the Sea King didn’t have the legs to get from the Falklands to Argentina and back. Drop the hairies off at the end of Punto Araenas runway then skip over the border, land and surrender to the Chilean authorities. Said hairies set up an OP with satellite comms and phone home any time a strike mission takes off, something well worth the cost of losing a Sea King for.

  2. Comment says

    Somewhere we have an account of a Thatcher cabinet meeting and war council meeting re Falklands – In this meeting there is a lot of racial anaysis voiced about Argentines (are they French? are they Spanish? are they Italian? what about the Germans? etc) to determine expected fighting quality- It was all soo Derb.

  3. Comment says

    Speaking of Chili – does anyone recall the contretemps between Eliot Abrams and Jesse Helms – Helms was huge vocal supporter for Pinochet – He and Dot would dine with him. In 1986 Helms supposedly claimed he was spied upon by Abrams and the agency. It was all odd and it barely registers in our memory. We were young, but it stuck in our mind. Elliot Abrams protestations for human rights and democracy sounded a bit insincere. There was something strange going on.

    Btw – The WaPO uses Abrams as their sole source to say Clinton was privately pro war. Clinton has truth problems, but so does Abrams – more so. But it was interesting that WaPo, in their news story, felt they had to get Hillary Mann on the record referring to her second hand observation of Ellot Abrams glee at Clinton’s supposed hawkishness. It doesn’t ring true – Abrams doesn’t like Clinton, so the bonhomie sounds odd. But there is a disconnect also – in that the news feels they have to prove Clinton was prop war via a weird link, but elsehwere the paper just cites oblique public “support the troops” rhetoric from Clinton to imply he was pro war.
    Tweety is also adamant – Which means Clinton may be vindicated eventually – Tweety is losing his mind anyway.

  4. says

    As you know Bob, there are various stories about Chilean assistance; mostly impossible to quantify. I have always suspected Thatcher pushed them in order to provide a covering narrative for her hand-holding with el generale.

    That interview is the most plausible and most substantiated I’ ve heard; better than, for example, the tales that Canberra PR9s were based in Chile. At various times in the war the fleet was receiving early warning; whether from submarine ESM off the coast (something the RN SSNs had a NATO Northern Flank role for), from special force chaps in the hills, or from Chilean radar.

    If the latter it doesn’t explain why the EW came and went so often….or maybe it does.

  5. Dr.LeoStrauss says

    Alex, the Japanese have a pretty good initial bird up — the issue of course is not just the individual platform (electric or optical) or how good its slant range/obliques are, but simply a constellation for persistence or if not that then capacity for re-positioning (with possible impact on life cycle of the platform). Their needs are more focused regionally and makes it easier to keep satellite(s) on station. The U.K. presumably would want a more global footprint.

    The U.S. as you likely know did “tilt” to the U.K. and provided effective hardware and other intel support for the Task Force. The Argentines misread their leverage re their help some of the Agency’s covert action (‘special activity’) plans against the Sandinistas/Ortegas. If the actual imagery first generation was denied (and I have no way of knowing) by product would be a different and easier issue. Recall at that time, the actual capabilities and real resolution of our birds were possibly among the most sensitive U.S. secrets re the Sovs. (Falcon and the Snowman aside).

    There are now, however, choices for the UK that did not exist 20 years ago.

  6. Comment says

    Alex – Correct us if we are wrong – but didn’t Maggie Thatcher defend Pinochet on the grounds that he, more than anyone, helped UK in the Falklands campaign? But isn’t there more to the story? Didn’t Pinochet also play both sides?

  7. Comment says

    Earlier today we saw David Gregory on Tweety or maybe it was Russert. Whatever – But what caught our ear was Gregory casually relaying as receieved wisdom that revelation of Bush’s arrest in 2000 led to evangelical voters staying home in droves.

    Doc – we have reviewed those claims a bit and we think that is a largely unproven speculation – We heard Rove say the same thing and we think Gregory bought Rove’s false narrative. Part of the bargaining the msm does with movement conservatives is that they try to concede narratives and other seemingly nonideological things to the conservatives. It probably never occcured to David Gregory than Bush probably lost no evengelical votes – or far less than 4 million. He probably has no idea why Rove would want him to think otherwise – afterall, it was a negative story. As Casey Stengel would say, can’t anyone ….

  8. Comment says

    Leave it to Sean Hannity to keep us all informed – we just tuned in tonight to his show and we were immediately impressed as addressed the most important topics – He started off with Hillary’s communist party connections from the 70s and then followed up with a segment on liberals and terrorism – which led to an interview with George Galloway, ofcourse.

  9. Anon says

    Ahh yes – Mitterand was more helpful in private, right? Getting those exocets neutralized? But he was typically French in public. OTOH, Reagan was supportive in public, but Haig and others really liked Galtiere and the regime because they were good at torturing leftists in other S. American countries (Condor?)

  10. says

    Defence Secretary John Nott and Scientific Adviser Ronald Mason went over to ask for overhead imagery of the islands and the Argentine southern airfields, as per the understandings; no dice, no pics.

  11. says

    Time for the U.K. to invest in at least a minimal overhead capability, methinks; that promise of access to the take looks worse and worse every day, even forgetting the ’82 great betrayal.

    Surrey Satellite Tech or Astrium (ex-Hawker Siddeley Dynamics Stevenage Division)? Doesn’t matter. Commercial launch. Even Nigeria has a satellite program.

  12. Hunter says

    It seems there are a few tipping points in play here (ok, I now hate that term…): the economic one obviously, but that oversight issue points to another. As you say, a few Senators have engaged in quixotic quests to perform oversight in various capacities on various programs, including this one. As well documented here and elsewhere these are almost universally quixotic (and publicly known to be so). Whether the monied interests, the unitary executive, or bureaucratic entanglements, in every instance some factor(s) make lege oversight utterly impractical. It seems we’ve already passed that point, in the larger host gov’t. The NRO’s ineffectualism is a canary in the coal mine at worst, but it’s like the 18th dead bird we got, and we’re still digging. (ok, that was fun, but it was yet another old metaphor from the age of industry…)

  13. Comment says

    There is little doubt IMO that Conrad has read the above book and the description of the Private Banker in London as a super specimen hailing from an older age plays a small part in imaginary career change to finance.

  14. Comment says

    Walter Bagehot famously said “the essence of great banking is liability.” (from memory – might be a bit off) – So recently we saw the great Citigroup do an 11 Bil write off, with virtually zero liability for senior mgmt and then followed by a bailout investment from an oil sheikdom.

    The PNSS is derivative of what it defends – It has seen itself as an end in itself. But that’s accidentaly. In any event – it makes sense that the PNSS would change a bit because the character of the establishment has become more hollow.

  15. Dr Leo Strauss says


    Right, no endorsement implied of the PNSS in its fullness. Definitely meant to sketch out the duality re host. Having said all that, the U.S. does need a persistent, redundant and multilayered imagery capability. The NRO’s inability to perform its raison d’etre is a cause for alarm — as is the inability of Congress to do even meager oversight (a few senators’ quixotic attempts aside).

    The larger question of whether a tipping point, if it exists, might touch upon the larger U.S. information economy perhaps best reserved for a more considered and dedicated item.

  16. Comment says

    Dog whistle will soon be cliche, but it’s pretty good. Everyone knows what you mean when you bring it up in conversation. If you ever listen in to a small group of people sitting at restaurant talking, it’s usually difficult to follow because so much of ordinary speech among friends in coded – verbal winks and nods. Speaking of Friedman – most people who buy his books don’t read them or don’t read them carefully. They are signifiers dangling outside totebags, subway rider defense mechanisms, haute ‘good-reads’ for the beach or other signifiers. What was funny about Taibbis hit piece was his novelty of actually examining the contents.

  17. Hunter says

    OK, I think I understand this post now… is this a good thing? This site is not exactly laudatory of the PNSS (that ‘P’… we are documenting the implosion of the thing, no? perhaps instead of permanent it should mean parasitic, esp. since that’s the metaphor in this post and in this comment), but at the same time, the ‘tipping point’ this post speaks of is bad not only for the parasite but for the host as well. The collapse of our information economy would be painful to say the least for all involved

  18. Hunter says

    GA was a doofus, but the incident was illustrative of a contemporary reality. My point is that an ambitious young thing could take the two observations above (all messages will be universally broadcast (an artifact of technology) and ‘consistency’ is the name of the game (an artifact of contemporary media culture)), work through the implications of this, and come up with a collection of techniques to vet every statement by a candidate to make sure that it says the ‘right’ thing to as many different groups of people as possible. Toss in a bunch of pseudo-scientific garbage about how to ‘pack’ multiple messages into one statement, given foreknowledge of the different decoding machines (groups of people) likely to be encountered in the populace, and maybe (if really ambitious) throw in a bit of dynamical systems theory to predict how the interaction of the various groups’ various interpretations will develop, and one could sell this as the ‘next big thing’ in campaign techne.

    Still needs a worse/better/newer name/metaphor than dogg whistle, especially for the inevitable Friedman treatment.

  19. Comment says

    Dog whistle politics is always evolving in sophestication – ever more refined. George Allen was a doofus. Natural selection at work.

  20. Hunter says

    The subject of this post is probably important somehow, but I need to think on it more.

    Slightly OT, but I just noticed it: could this be an alternative interpretation of Obama’s ‘attacking the boomers’? Perhaps not so much ‘the boomers’ as the entrenched AA power structure?

    These codes and their decryption are getting a bit obnoxious. I mean, as a matter of information theory, perfect compression is indistinguishable from perfect encryption is indistinguishable from perfectly random data. Further, given such a data stream, a decryption machine can be built to ‘find’ any message (of suitable length). In a sense, in any random string of data, ALL messages are contained (if you’ve got the right decryption apparatus).

    But when these messages are a part of the public sphere, meant to influence policy, it seems the messages are less important than the various decryption machines running around (i.e. the various groups of people who, within a particular group, think enough alike to hear roughly the same thing in a public statement). Who was Obama talking to? Everybody, but he was saying different things to different people, even though he was using the same words.

    Time was, politicians did this using different words for different groups. With the rise of Youtube (e.g. the George Allen affair), and to a lesser extent Russert’s brand of gotcha-ism, that’s no longer possible. Consistency is all-important, and all messages are universally broadcast. This theory could probably be expanded into a political-consulting praxis (mere shades different from what already passes for politics today) and then written up as a book. Now it just needs a cute name (like Microtrends…).

  21. Comment says

    So far only Duncan Hunter touches on this issue in the campaign, but it’s lost in his misty father-son gun corn routine.

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