Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Technical Collection Game and the Strange Reports from Iran

The Adventures of Chester:
How to reconcile seemingly conflicting information emerging from Iran -- or rather from the space wherein lies the US-Iranian relationship?

The story started in the Washington Post on Sunday. The Post gave a valiant attempt to throw the story in favor of the Iranians, noting that since they decided not to engage the US drones, the US was unable to gather information about the Iranian air defenses:

"It was clear to our air force that the entire intention here was to get us to turn on our radar," the official said.

That tactic, designed to contribute information to what the military calls an "enemy order of battle," was used by the U.S. military in the Korean and Vietnam wars, against the Soviets and the Chinese, and in both Iraq wars.

"By coaxing the Iranians to turn on their radar, we can learn all about their defense systems, including the frequencies they are operating on, the range of their radar and, of course, where their weaknesses lie," said Thomas Keaney, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

But it did not work. "The United States must have forgotten that they trained half our guys," the Iranian official said. After a briefing by their air force three weeks ago, Iran's national security officials ordered their forces not to turn on the radar or come into contact with the drones in any way.

"Our decision was: Don't engage," the Iranian official said. Leaving the radar off deprives U.S. forces of vital information about the country's air defense system, but it also makes it harder for Iran to tell if an attack is underway.

This is all true -- if the Iranians didn't turn on their air defenses, then the US probably didn't gather much new info about them.

But to imply an advantage for Iran here is misleading. The US has infiltrated Iranian airspace with no response. Moreover, either the Iranians took their sweet time in noticing, or the US started small and slowly escalated the extent and coverage of the infiltration. The Post mentions that the US began in April of 2004, but has had aircraft over Iran as recently as December, 2004 and January of 2005. But the Iranian National Security Council didn't decide not to engage them until January, 2005?

Moreover, whether information about air defenses was a goal or not, the US has no doubt gathered a great deal of useful intelligence of a variety of kinds. One of the best ways to test an enemy's defense is to go through a series of posturing moves designed to test his reactions. In so doing, the US would ratchet up its activity to a feverish pace, then quit with no warning, then hit it again in different spots, then back off slowly, etc. By performing intelligence collection in unexpected ways, one can systematically test the defenses of one's quarry. Perhaps nothing was gained about air defenses, but there are many other things of interest. When combined with signals collection, for example, these incursions would be very useful for mapping command and control networks. Who calls whom when a drone appears? Who does that person then call?

A betting man would place good money that Iran's airspace isn't the only place where such incursions and challenges are taking place . . . testing Iran's naval activity around Bushehr would be my first guess . . . and US subs would be the vehicle for doing so.

But it gets even more interesting . . .

Note this Newsmax article, Iran Okayed U.S. Drone Flights:

A senior Iranian diplomat tells NewsMax that a recent report in the Washington Post that the U.S. had been spying on their nuclear facilities using drones was not news to them - the Iranian government had quietly given the U.S. the OK to make the overflights.

Strange, eh? More:

NewsMax has leaned that the U.S. surveillance flights came up dry and may have since been suspended, at least temporarily.

Some suspect that Tehran halted activity and sanitized sites where weapons research was underway before the U.S. began flying the drones.

So, rather than exacerbating tensions between Washington and Tehran, the flights have actually undercut any Bush administration moves against Iran, at least for the time being.

Perhaps the Iranian official is just playing the Farsi version of the CYA game. But if he's honest . . . why would the US telegraph its plans to overfly with drones?

To map this out, the Bush Administration asked Tehran for permission for the overflights, presumably from a position of "since you have nothing to hide anyway . . ." If I was Iranian and wanted to hide what I was doing, I would immediately begin a frenzy of activity. This activity could then be watched by satellites before any drones even started flying. After discovering that we were about to begin the flights, how did vehicle traffic change around key sites? What phone calls were made to whom? What equipment was moved, and to where? And at day or night? And by whom? How long did any displacement take? A wealth of information could have been gained merely be releasing that we were about to start flying, and then to watch and see what happened . . .

NewsMax reports that the flights found little of consequence. Why would this be released? Whether true or not, it certainly serves to embolden the Iranians, who have been led to believe that the flights found nothing, and that the flights have ceased. So perhaps they have, but they've been replaced by other means of collection to see the consequences.

I seriously doubt that the US made the move to put several drones over Iranian airspace all the while thinking that the Iranians would never notice . . .

How might the Iranians react next time?

Another NewsMax story, Iran Now Threatens to Shoot Down U.S. Drones, notes thus:

Iran's intelligence chief on Wednesday accused the United States of flying spy drones over its nuclear sites and threatened to shoot down the unmanned surveillance crafts.

Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi comments backed a report in The Washington Post on Sunday that quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying the drones have been flying over Iran for nearly a year to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs.


In December, the Iranian air force was ordered to shoot down any unknown flying objects. At the time, there were reports in Iranian newspapers that Iran had discovered spying devices in pilotless planes its air defense force had shot down.

"If any of the bright objects come close, they will definitely meet our fire and will be shot down. We possess the necessary equipment to confront them," Yunesi said.

So here, we learn that the Iranians claim to have shot down some drones -- which refutes the Post's assertion that nothing was gained for the US by this venture. I think it is more likely that the Iranians did not shoot anything down, but that this is bluster meant for their own domestic consumption . . .

How might the US execute a collection mission next? If the Iranians refuse to shoot drones, then the US will probably begin to play games with manned aircraft. Since we effectively own the airspace over the Persian Gulf, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, one tactic would be to increase significantly the number and tempo of flights of manned aircraft getting very close to the Iranian border, so that the Iranians will become desensitized to the US presences, and then . . . slower to react when the planes don't just get near the border, but break it in the midst of their targeting runs . . .