Wednesday, September 05, 2007

SSBN Propeller Exposed On MS Virtual Earth

Military.China.Com - A photograph of a sensitive piece of Navy technology — the propeller of a ballistic-missile submarine — now appears on the Internet, thanks to commercial efforts to photograph and map all corners of the Earth by aircraft and satellite.

And it appears there by accident.

Dan Twohig works as a deck officer on the ferry that runs between Seattle and Bremerton, Wash. He was thinking of moving to be closer to his job, so he began scanning the real estate on the Bremerton side of Puget Sound using the Microsoft mapping tool called Virtual Earth. He saw the ballistic submarine in dry dock and its exposed propeller.

“My initial reaction was ‘oops.’ Then I looked around awhile and looked at other things. If you look at the White House, it’s all blurred out. They protect that, but don’t protect what else is out there,” he said.

Twohig posted a link to the photo on his Web site; Navy Times is not publishing the name of the site. “My intention of bringing the prop photos to the attention of my readers was in no way malicious,” he said, adding that he wanted to highlight that the image exists for “the average Joe to find if he is looking for it.”

The Navy goes to great lengths to conceal the design of its submarine propellers, but the aerial photo now on the Internet clearly shows the blades.

While he confirmed that the photo does show an Ohio-class hull, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, submarine force public affairs officer, said it’s unclear what submarine is pictured.

“Yes, that is an Ohio-class submarine, either an SSBN or SSGN, in dry dock in the Pacific Northwest at the intermediate maintenance facility on the Naval Submarine Base Kitsap-Bangor,” he said.

Though the photograph appears on a Microsoft site, photo credit is given to Pictometry International Corporation, which specializes in such aerial photography. Several messages left for a company spokesman were not returned.

Pictometry’s motto is, “See anywhere, measure anything, plan everything,” according to its Web site.

The submarine maintenance facility is photographed in good detail from several angles. A further search through Virtual Earth shows a ballistic submarine in an East Coast shipyard with its missile tubes open.

Microsoft provided a statement attributed to Justin Osmer, a senior product manager at LiveSearch, through public relations firm Waggener-Edstrom.

“Our mapping products fully comply with U.S. laws governing the acquisition and publishing of aerial imagery,” according to the statement. “The clarity of the images is impressive, but beyond a certain zoom level, the images become ‘pixilated’ and blur. In addition, some Virtual Earth imagery can only be viewed from certain distances.

“Additionally, there are other instances where images have been intentionally blurred for security purposes. We review requests to do so on a case-by-case basis. In addition, we do not provide real-time data or live satellite images. All the imagery has been collected at a fixed point in time over a period of the last few years.”

A request to interview a Microsoft official about the program was not granted.

Naval Sea Systems Command did not respond to a request for information about government rules on overflights of naval shipyards and facilities by Friday afternoon.

Nathan Hughes is a military analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence company. He A military analysts for a global intelligence company says it was a major mistake at the facility for that propeller to be exposed at all.

“It’s very sensitive naval technology,” said Nathan Hughes, an analyst at Stratfor. You always hide that from above.”

He says that such equipment has been concealed for decades since the Cold War and the first spy satellites.

“The SSBN, especially, with it’s acoustic signature, they try to be as quiet as possible. That [propeller] is national secret. This is something that should not be seen from space or an airplane or any other way.”

Today such imagery, like recent pictures of a new Chinese ballistic missile submarine, appear with greater frequency on the globally accessible Internet.

“This is just the world we live in these days,” he says.