The Need to Know

Jan. 1, 1963

The role of US aerial reconnaissance in exposing and countering the Communist missile ploy in Cuba has received due recognition. Little noticed, however, has been the relation between the Cuban activity and the total free-world intelligence problem.

The most serious imbalance in the confrontation between the Communist nations and the free world has resulted from the cloak of secrecy which shrouds the Soviet bloc. Today accelerating progress in improved performance of reconnaissance equipment raises hope that this imbalance can be overcome on a unilateral basis, if necessary, and that a new era of more nearly balanced intelligence is coming.

Several years ago, Jimmy Doolittle was asked just how he would bolster US defenses if he were Secretary of Defense and were suddenly given $2 billion extra to spend as he pleased. He answered, “I’d spend it all on intelligence.”

This year Lt. Gen. James Ferguson, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff/Research and Development, told a con­gressional committee, “First, there is a marked im­balance between the Soviet bloc and the free world relating to intelligence activities. I need not labor this point with this committee.”

A lopsided information imbalance is a fundamental handicap which must be accepted by an “open society” that is determined to remain “open” during a struggle with a “closed society.” But there is also a definite limit to the intelligence handicap that any nation can accept with equanimity.

For at least ten years knowledgeable US political and military leaders have been aware of the dangers of unwarranted fears, military miscalculation, and improvident action which go hand and hand with poor intelligence. Since the Korean War the US has tried many avenues to pierce the screen of Soviet secrecy and to move the information situation toward a man­ageable balance.

Diplomatic efforts, such as President Eisenhower’s “open skies” proposal, have thus far proved totally un­successful. As a consequence it has been necessary to resort to more clandestine methods. Events have con­spired to expose some of these methods to public view and detailed public discussion. Operations over the Soviet Union with the U-2 airplane was the most dra­matic revelation to date. But there have also been the stories of the downing of the RB-47 surveillance air­craft near Russian territory in the Barents Sea; high-powered radar on Turkish peaks; advanced equipment in the US which can “observe” the Asian land-mass by bouncing signals off the moon. Most recently there has been the disclosure through aerial photography of the Communist missile bases in Cuba.

All such surveillance operations have one thing in common. They depend almost entirely upon equipment which has been developed in recent years. Both photo­graphic and electronic surveillance equipment today is far advanced over that of twenty years ago. The un­classified technical literature clearly indicates that the current revolution in technology (see AIR FORCE, Sep­tember ’62, page 110) is causing some especially spec­tacular progress in surveillance systems. There doesn’t appear to be any slacking off in this revolution. Much more progress is predicted in the next decade than the last.

Fortunately, virtually all of the experts agree that this is one technical area in which the US has no close rivals. Admittedly spurred by necessity, the nation has stayed well ahead of all competitors for many years. On occasion the Soviets have given substantiating testimony to this opinion. For instance, when Premier Khrushchev attended the US exhibit in Moscow shortly after the launching of Sputnik I, he made the following comment when he passed some high-altitude photographs of the American Midwest. Mixing some propaganda with an admission, he said, “Americans have the secrets of photography and we have all of secrets of rockets. We should exchange.” Despite such statements in 1957, the Soviets appear not to have understood what photography and first-class surveillance operations could accomplish in 1962 when the Cuban missile build-up was ordered, or they didn’t care.

Current progress and the prospect that much better equipment can be available in the near future has raised the possibility that the US could obtain in the decade ahead a completely new insurance policy for peace—a satellite system.

If we press our advantage, there is also hope that the Russian passion for secrecy may abate in the face of reality. With or without Soviet consent it is technically possible that activities within the Soviet Union will be much better known, at least to the US government, during the next ten years than they have been in the past ten. Such knowledge will have a controlling effect on our defense budgets, our economy, foreign policy, and the attitudes of our people.

Five considerations point toward the use of satellite reconnaissance systems:

• First, there is little doubt that dozens of US space vehicles will be in orbit near the earth from now on. Any Soviet attempt to stop this traffic would require the highest sort of policy decision and could lead only to the most serious confrontation.

• Second, such space vehicles can be equipped with extremely powerful and useful surveillance gear. There is every reason to believe they could be as effective if not more effective, than aircraft have been in the past. For instance, Soviet literature has discussed the possibility of satellite cameras which could distinguish objects on the ground only sixteen inches in diameter from an altitude of 1,000 miles, even though this kind of result is still a dream in terms of the current state of the art.

• Third, US recognition of the need to maintain healthy balance in intelligence news has been clearly demonstrated. The two most recent Administrations have exploited aerial surveillance to this end.

• Fourth, recent information indicates that some major elements of US policy during the past ten years were safety-first measures pursued on the basis of inadequate information. The latest “informed reports” in the press indicate that the US is now well ahead of the Soviet Union in the production and deployment of long-range ballistic missiles. The Kennedy Administration now says that the “missile gap,” a major point of con­tention in the last presidential campaign, never really existed. The same is said to be true for the “bomber gap” of the middle 1950s. The possible “overbuilding” of the US forces to meet inadequately defined threats is believed to work to the detriment of the USSR in the opinion of many Soviet experts.

• Fifth, as a result of the Cuban crisis the Presi­dent’s commitment to overt surveillance of a foreign power as a part of our national policy places new emphasis on the need for complete intelligence infor­mation. Hopefully, this commitment could be a pre­cursor of a much-needed national policy of worldwide intelligence as a step in closing the information gap. Photographic reconnaissance provides the most under­standable and communicable form of intelligence. It provides a channel of communication not only to our national leaders and to our people, but to the United Nations and to the peoples of the world.

The exact nature of the new surveillance equipment understandably is a matter of close security, and the details are for experts in any case. However, a grossly accurate picture of meaning to laymen can be con­structed from unclassified technical papers of recent years.

The first big point is that, contrary to some reports, aerial photography is not .going to be replaced by elec­tronic devices in the foreseeable future. Despite the rapid improvements being made in the performance of electronic equipment, photography, radar, and infra­red reconnaissance systems still hold the same relative positions and have the same fundamental relative ad­vantages and disadvantages they did ten years or so ago. Photography can still crowd much more informa­tion into a given area of film and produce the most detailed record of any activity. The primary value of radar is that it can function in absolute darkness and through clouds. Infrared will operate at night and can locate heat sources. Consequently, these basic systems are complementary rather than competitive in most surveillance operations and, barring any completely un­foreseen technical breakthrough, they will undoubtedly remain so.

Gross evaluations of the relative performance of the basic systems are usually made by comparing their ground resolutions, which corresponds to the smallest objects they are able to distinguish on the ground from a given altitude. Exact comparisons are not simple be­cause no single factor can tell the complete story of how any system will perform under specific conditions.

The ground resolution of modern camera systems is in the neighborhood of five feet or less from altitudes of 200 to 250 miles. Coherent radar will only distin­guish objects in the range of thirty-five to fifty feet across from the same altitude, while infrared is limited to objects more than sixty feet on a side.

Another factor of importance is simply called the resolution. This is the number of lines in a given area on a picture. The closer the lines are together the more detail will be visible. Any object larger than the width of one line and one space will be discernible on a pictur­e regardless of how it was made. Significant details I appear on objects that cover several lines and spaces. In this department, the technical literature shows that photography can provide eighty to 100 lines per millimeter today and that the immediate develop­ment goal is 200 to 300 lines per millimeter. Radar can deliver only five to ten lines per millimeter, and infra­red less than five lines.

The camera performance quoted above is a little short of miraculous, for in World War II the average aerial photo had twenty to thirty lines per millimeter. This was about double the ten- to twelve-line photo­graphic resolution in World War I, which was in the same class with good radar systems today.

This enormous progress in photography has one thing in common with many other rapid technical advances—it was hard to sell, at least in its early phases. Appar­ently people simply did not believe that pictures taken from orbiting satellites could ever show enough detail to be of value in surveillance. A clear indication of this selling difficulty is contained in the RAND Paper P-­1707 by Amron Katz, entitled “Observation Satellites: Problems, Possibilities and Prospects,” dated May 25, 1959. This paper stated, “Photointerpreters active dur­ing World War II have been known to exhibit shock and incredulity at (and therefore to dismiss) the no­tion that photographs taken from altitudes of hundreds of miles might ever be useful.” This skepticism becomes more understandable when we realize that it is only recently that operational altitudes of more than twenty miles or so became possible.

The advances in photography are not based on any fundamentally new techniques or inventions. They have been brought about by a concentrated effort on improving the basic elements in a camera—the lens, the film, and the shutter. Katz, in the classic RAND report mentioned above, explains the basic considerations of satellite photography in a manner that any layman can understand and enjoy, and he also stresses three fundamental rules for practical aerial camera design which were applicable during World War II and which have not lost any of their importance.

Rule One: There is no substitute for focal length. As the film is moved back from the lens, the scale factor is decreased, i.e., one inch on the photograph represents a shorter distance on the ground. When using a film and lens system of given resolution (lines per mm.), the ground resolution (smallest object that can be seen) of the photograph is greatly improved by increasing the focal length and lowering the scale factor.

This rule is popularly known as Goddard’s Law, after Brig. Gen. George Goddard, who more than any other man molded the Air Force photo-reconnaissance effort in its first thirty years, from 1920 to 1950. General Goddard, who is still active as Assistant to the President of the Itek Corporation, was mainly responsible for the development of huge, long-focal-length lenses that were so valuable during World War II and have become a US trademark since.

Rule Two: There is no substitute for shutter speed. All aerial cameras must be equipped with some mechanism to compensate for the motion of the camera platform relative to the ground. Accurate image motion compensation is vital or the pictures will be blurred. The use of very fast shutter speeds is the best means of keeping this motion-compensation problem manage­able.

Rule Three: Make it as big as you can. Katz says that this rule applies to long-distance photographic equipment just as it does to boxers or football players. There is no premium in miniaturizing.

These three simple rules point the general course of photographic development, and one equally simple example illustrates roughly what the progress has been. In the 1950s a flyable camera with a twenty-foot focal length had been developed for the Air Force. This means that at an altitude of 150 miles, the camera’s scale factor will be about 40,000 to one. That is, one inch on the photograph will show 40,000 inches or .625 miles on the ground. The ground resolution is equal to the scale factor divided by 300 times the resolution of the lens and films. If this lens-film resolution were 100 lines per mm., such a camera theoretically would be able to distinguish objects on the ground about sixteen inches in diameter from an altitude of 150 miles. Other factors well known to astronomers, such as atmos­pheric disturbances, would undoubtedly compromise this performance, but it would still be extraordinary.

Looking a considerable distance into the future, ex­perts don’t blink at predictions that focal lengths of eighty feet will some day be achieved. When film-lens resolution reaches 300 lines per mm., an eighty-foot-­focal-length camera theoretically could see a sixteen-inch device on the ground from more than 1,500 miles, altitude. That is, it could show the manhole covers on Broadway, the trash barrels in the alleys, and the bases in Yankee Stadium. From an altitude of 150 miles this camera would be able to distinguish objects less than two inches in diameter, and photo interpreters would be able to count golf balls on a green.

Many other design compromises are necessary because even though the camera is vital, it is only one small element in the systems needed for successful aerial-reconnaissance operations. Usually such operations must be conducted on a large scale. Allowable processing times are short, and large quantities of information must be scanned and interpreted. A great deal of special equipment is needed both in the air and on the ground to speed these processes. Cameras of special design are required to take photographs at all flight speeds, at low and high altitude, and under adverse lighting conditions.

During the 1920s and 1930s a firm foundation was laid in the US in this end of the business. Gen. Billy Mitchell set a precedent and began the building process in 1920 when he assigned Lt. George Goddard as the first Chief Photo Officer on the Air Corps staff. He also set up eighteen operational photo-reconnaissance sections and spread them out in the US, Panama, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Goddard’s assignment was to back them up by establishing a training school at Chanute Field and an R&D unit at Wright Field, Ohio.

In a most unusual move, the Army allowed Goddard to specialize in this technical field during his entire thirty-year career, and he eventually commanded units he was ordered to create. His long-term involvement in the problems of photo reconnaissance also put him in a position to make some unique contributions. He was instrumental in the following developments:

• Waterproof Paper. Atmospheric humidity had relatively little effect on this paper compared to other types in use during World War II. It required very little drying and was supplied in large quantities to the British, Russians, and other wartime allies to improve their reconnaissance operations.

• Quick Processing. The first airborne processing units which could deliver finished pictures instead of raw film, at the end of a reconnaissance flight. These units were also requested by the Allies early in WW II.

• Night Photography. Goddard received a patent on an almost foolproof device for synchronizing a camera shutter with the maximum lighting period of a magnesium flare dropped under the photo plane. This system has been used by the USAF for nearly thirty years and by all major air forces since World War II. In the late 1940s Goddard developed an improved syst­em for fast, low-level, night photography in which the flares were replaced by magnesium cartridges fired to the rear of the aircraft.

• Continuous Strip Cameras. In this shutterless camera the film is pulled past a slit about .004 inch wide at the same speed that a low-flying airplane is moving over the ground. A simple unit, using two pho­tocells, is mounted in the camera to monitor the air­craft’s speed and continuously adjust the film speed. This camera was used to great effect in low-level recon­naissance during the latter years of World War II. During a period of detached service with the Navy, Goddard was instrumental in the design of a stereo­scopic strip camera which was able to determine the height of underwater reefs and beach obstacles to an accuracy as fine as two inches. With this equipment Navy reconnaissance units were able to provide data on shallow-water navigation and obstacle demolition that eliminated the offshore entrapment of landing craft that marred battles like Tarawa.

• Camouflage Detection Film. This special film makes natural chlorophylls show up in red. The first successful demonstration took place in 1938, but the film was used sparingly in World War II. In one of the most important operations, it revealed the large camouflage system over the German V-1 preparation area north of Arras, France, as a large blue fan. This complex had escaped detection during many weeks of conventional reconnaissance.

• First Long-Focal-Length Camera. Shortly after World War II, the R&D unit at Wright Field, under General Goddard’s direction, established the technical feasibility of long-focal-length cameras. The 100-inch focal-length K-30 camera, built by Hycon Manufactu­ring Company under contract to the Air Force, is still in the USAF inventory more than twelve years after it was delivered for test—eloquent proof of God­dard’s Law.

These developments are only a few examples of those necessary to make large-scale photo reconnais­sance operations, of all types, possible during World War II. Many firms and many individuals participated in the development of lens, shutters, and motion-compensation and camera-stabilization equipment, to name a few of the key devices.

This type of work continues today on a much broader scale. Radar and infrared devices are far beyond their infant period of the 1940s. These sensors, plus much more efficient cameras mounted in just one modern very-high-altitude and very-long-range vehicle, can pour forth in a single day a torrent of information that could have been gathered only by a fleet of reconnais­sance aircraft in 1942. The handling, processing, and interpretation of such information floods has become a limiting factor in practical operations. Highly trained people apparently are indispensable in this task for the foreseeable future, but they must be assisted by arrays of computers and automatic machines to make timely interpretations of the available information.

But progress today depends upon much more than improved solutions to the problem of high-volume, short-time interpretation. The list below gives a small indication of the extent of the current effort to improve the national capability for gathering and assimilating information.

• High Resolution Ground Mapping Satellite Radar. General Dynamics/Convair has shown theo­retically that five radar-carrying satellites symmetrically spaced twelve miles apart can take pictures with a ground resolution of ten feet. This is at least three times the resolution believed possible with a single radar-mapping satellite. It also is superior to World War II mapping photography, which had a ground resolution of fifteen to twenty feet from 30,000 feet altitude.

• Photopolymerization Film. Technical Operations Inc. of Burlington, Mass., has an Air Force con­tract to develop a film that requires no development in the conventional sense. The picture would appear as the shutter is tripped and the film exposed, and then it would be “fixed” in the camera by a simple, nonfluid process.

• Panoramic Cameras. Until the 1950s it was necessary to use three cameras—one vertical and two aimed obliquely to the sides—to photograph a wide strip along the path of a reconnaissance airplane. In 1949 the first panoramic camera was flown, and it made the first horizon-to-horizon picture using a single lens. This long-focal-length lens was rotated across the line of flight to expose a long segment of film. In effect, it was a variation of the strip camera. Since then a num­ber of improvements have been made, including a de­sign in which a long-focal-length, high-resolution lens did not have to move. This innovation is credited to James C. Baker of Harvard Observatory who is con­sidered by most aerial photographic experts and opti­cal designers to be without a close rival in optical design. Perkin-Elmer Corp., Itek, and the Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation have been promi­nent in panoramic camera development. The first of these cameras was quite large and suitable only for the largest aircraft, but enough time has passed that this disadvantage probably has been overcome.

• Photographic Rectification. Unlike a vertical photograph, the panoramic photograph or any oblique photograph does not have a constant scale factor over the picture area. In the case of a panoramic camera, which sweeps from one horizon through vertical and on out to the other horizon to produce a single picture, one inch on the film represents a much greater dis­tance on the ground at the horizon portion of the pho­tograph than it does at the vertical portion. To remove this geometric distortion, printers are available to rec­tify panoramic photographs and make them as inter­pretable as those produced by conventional cameras. One of the latest is a self-contained, high-resolution, battlefield-type printer developed for the Army by Itek Corporation. Another such device, built by Hycon Manufacturing Company, employs a flying spot scan­ner and not only removes geometric distortion but at the same time prints out an enlargement of the pano­ramic photograph.

• Image Enhancement through Electronic Print­ing. Extreme lighting variations in aerial photographs was a severe problem until recent years. Much detail was lost in areas shaded by clouds, mountains, etc., and in areas of very bright sunlight. Now electronic processes provide automatic control over the printing process and bring out much of the detail that formerly was lost.

• Folded and Metal Optics. The idea of using several mirrors inside a telescope to “fold” a long focal length into a short space dates from the seventeenth century. However, new twists are still being found to make this idea more effective. One example is the Itek telescope shown on page 72, which is less than four feet long yet has a twenty-foot focal length. Another unique feature of this telescope is that it uses mirrors made of solid aluminum rather than glass. This change was instrumental in lowering the weight of this design to fifty pounds, which is several hundred pounds lighter than a similar telescope using glass optics. A further advantage claimed for the metal mirrors is very high dimensional and curvature stability over a very wide temperature range. Their thermal stability is said to be good enough to allow them to operate for long periods in orbit without adjustment, a feat that probably couldn’t be accomplished with glass optics.

Today there apparently is an abundance of new ideas for improving both high- and low-level reconnaissance. There is optimism that the over-all national capability will be increased substantially during the coming decade.

A number of new vehicles will become available and will make reconnaissance operations more effective. One already in the works is the reconnaissance version of the new USAF F-4C tactical fighter being built by McDonnell Aircraft. Others, still in the early stages of development but definitely on order, are the TFX-long-range tactical fighter to be built for USAF by General Dynamics/Fort Worth, and the North American RS-70 scheduled for prototype flying. Such aircraft operating at supersonic speeds and at both high and low altitudes will pose new problems of vibration, shock wave patterns, and heated turbulent air close to camera windows and electronic domes. These problems, while formidable, are solvable. Hycon Manufacturing Company and Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation are currently developing new high-performance cameras for the RF-4C, and even better systems can be expected for the later TFX and the RS-70.

In more advanced and difficult technical problems there is muted hope for success. One exciting possibility in this class is the development of equipment which could detect the movement of guerrilla forces over varied types of terrain, including jungle. To date jungle foliage has resisted all penetration by electro-magnetic and photographic systems, but there are glimmers of possible solutions. If such detection equipment ever became available, it would be of incalculable value in ending clandestine military operations and in helping to restore stability to large sections of our troubled globe.

In the strategic field, the new reconnaissance technology clearly offers the possibility in a few years of unlocking the major political and military secrets of the closed societies of the world. Yet, regardless of how much data is collected, one question probably will remain for years to plague the system and to dilute its effect on free-world policy. There will be concern in some minds that the reconnaissance systems can be fooled and become victims of an elaborate and poten­tially fatal deception.

Most of the experts apparently believe that any large-scale, long-term deception against modern reconnaissance would be very difficult to achieve and pro­hibitively costly. However, the idea of foolproof satel­lite reconnaissance may be even more difficult to sell than the idea of any satellite reconnaissance.