Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Man Named John Walker or How We Spent Billions Because Someone "Talked"

Once more we have come to an interesting point in the conduct of a war. In the past few days, the New York Times saw fit to broadcast to the world that the NSA is actually monitoring communications or other than foreign sources. Sounds like a "DOH!" moment to me, but I'm no spook.... The entire incident is much like the John Walker case in the early 80s... For a lot of years (since the end of WWII, to be exact), the Cold War lead us on a path towards the development of two very large navies on the face of the planet. Ours was comprised of a mix of surface and submarines. The Soviets had surface ships, but a higher proportion of their fleett was subs. This lead to the development of more sophisticated methods of finding subs over ASDIC and active SONAR. Over time, more systems were developed to detect subsurface contacts using passive (listening) methods. Along the way, intelligence was gathered that would allow a passive system operator to look at the acoustic signature of the contact, and the consult a library of information that would help more specifically identify the class of the contact. That part is not a big deal, as to how the process worked. What was highly classified was what the libraries contained. This is where John Walker made his money. Through the selling of cryptographic codes to the Soviets, they could then pull previously recorded US radio traffic and play it through the crypto gear, then read the messages. We thought was had exclusive knowledge of the intelligence information, but John Walker and Associates, made sure the enemy could also pick up some of the traffic and then know what we knew. Armed with this information, Soviet engineers could then redesign the equipment and systems that were making the noises we were detecting. During this time, our passive SONAR systems were mostly the AN/SQR-18 towed array, with a few AN/SQR-14 and -15 units around. These systems were desigend to for certain "threats," techncially that means they looked for certain frequency ranges of submarine targets from the intelligence libraries. When John Walker essentially opened the books, the signals these systems were designed to detect began to disappear, as the Soviets put more effort into sound isolation on their boats. Tactically, it was like someone poked our eyes out. Strategically, our tactical forces could no longer act as mobile detection systems for the spectrum of subsurface threats we faced, from ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that could threaten the Continental US, to guided missile and attack submarines (SSGN/SSNs) that could threaten strategic assets such as aircraft carriers, and amphibious ships. When the NYT spilled their guts (without any torture, I might add), they did the same thing to the GWoT effort as John Walker did. The difference is John Walker and his band of tratiors were charged with, tried and convicted of espionage and are still in Federal prisons. In the aftermath of the John Walker case, we dramatically changed procedures for the handling of cryptographic codes and went to the drawing borads to design the newer equipment so we might once again be able to find the Soviet threats on other frequencies. The net result was billions were spent on the SOSUS sensors and the development of the AN/SQR-19 TACTASS, as well as upgrades to the hull mounted AN/SQS-53 SONAR. Much of the funding for these programs were done in a scramble, adding to the budget strains of the Reagan Era. How much will the disclosure by the NYT cost us? For one, it wasted the salaries of a lot of people at the NSA, not to mention the automated assets used to analyze the data collected. I'm also wondering what it will cost in lives. In the case of John Walker, since the military showdown between ourselves and the Soviets never came to pass, we never had to find out the hard way. In the GWoT, our adversaries are set on killing the citizens of the world, so the carnage will continue, some of it preventable, but it will be many, many years before we can count the real costs. Thanks to The Military Outpost for the link! Thanks to Little Green Footballs for the Open Thread!

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