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Low-Technology Foes Require High-Technology Detection

October 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Dual fronts task measurement and signature intelligence.

Greater urgencies in both conventional and asymmetrical warfare are accelerating the development and deployment of measurement and signature intelligence systems. This rapidly growing discipline is delving into more diverse sources of data, and experts are advancing ways of using it to help other intelligence sensor systems. Concurrently, laboratory researchers are seeking to develop a totally new family of sensor systems that can detect everyday energy emissions from artificial and organic sources.

Traditional uses of signature analysis tended to focus on signals emitted from high-technology equipment, and ongoing military operations in Afghanistan already have benefited from this type of intelligence. Now, homeland defenders in the war on terrorism are employing advanced elements of it to protect against weapons of mass destruction.

Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) in recent years has evolved from a serious laboratory science to a mature means of detecting, identifying and characterizing different threats, according to Barbara Sanderson, director of the Central MASINT Organization (CMO), Arlington, Virginia. Its mission areas include supporting military operations, counterproliferation, weapons acquisition, environmental activities, counterdrug operations and counterterrorism.

Sanderson explains that, in simple terms, MASINT involves finding a fingerprint for a target. This may include comparing physical features, measuring phenomena and plotting signatures. This information can be derived from many different types of emissions—nuclear radiation; electro-optical energy such as ultraviolet, infrared and visible light; radar; radio frequency; geophysical elements such as acoustic, seismic, magnetic and gravitational data; and material effluence, including debris.

By comparing signatures, MASINT experts can detect, locate and track targets. Sanderson states that MASINT generates precise measurements that reveal unique characteristics of targets. The variety of characteristics, coupled with their precision, defines the fingerprint analogy, she observes. Adding identification to the other three capabilities increases MASINT’s value in the transformed force.

“MASINT has the capability to give you the specifics,” Sanderson warrants. “The signature is the ID [identification] that you are looking for. The DNA signature on life forms is precise. The signature on a missile is precise. That is a necessary piece [of information] for understanding the target set. Coupled with the rest of intelligence, that gives the commander the confidence to proceed in battle.”

The CMO’s basic goals have not changed since September 11, 2001. However, Sanderson observes that the terrorist attacks have brought home the need for the organization to intensify its work on the global war on terrorism, especially when dealing with weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. This includes supporting all-source activities such as the Joint Intelligence Task Force on Counterterrorism.

MASINT capabilities are being applied to homeland security. Sanderson notes that many of MASINT’s technologies are particularly useful for countering chemical, biological or nuclear threats. The CMO has been working with a number of domestic federal agencies as well as the National Guard in this effort, she adds.

Since September 11, the organization also has increased its number of personnel. Sanderson relates that these new hires largely have backgrounds in biology and chemistry. “We always used to have a lot of physicists aboard,” she notes. “Now, we are adding those who can look at the biological warfare and chemical warfare problem.” The CMO also is working with numerous laboratories to tap additional expertise.

Sanderson cites several key technology areas where the CMO needs vital expertise. These include chemical analysis, spectral identification, acoustics, geophysical sciences and biological analysis, especially DNA matching.

Some of the biggest challenges facing the CMO involve supporting critical areas such as the global war on terrorism. This can encompass detecting the presence of weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear, chemical and biological systems. It also can include locating hidden targets and uncovering enemy deception efforts.

Sanderson relates that, while most of these involve technical challenges, one of the biggest tasks is to have the necessary target access for obtaining sought-after information. This requires using a range of sensors to collect different data from a variety of distances. Accordingly, the CMO is looking at new techniques that either allow measurement from greater distances or enable forces to move sensors closer to the target.

Persistent surveillance (SIGNAL, May, page 17) is another challenge. Sanderson notes that adversaries tend to become aware of detection capabilities and tailor their activities accordingly. Negating these evasive actions often requires maintaining a constant sensor presence.

The CMO is pursuing a two-track approach to improving its capabilities. The organization is working with a variety of government and commercial laboratories to exploit innovations in the sensor arena. Simultaneously, it is exploring new ways of enhancing the performance of existing sensors.

Atop Sanderson’s technology wish list is an unattended sensor that could reliably measure the signature of a foreign weapon system. “Give me enough of them so I could surround an area and understand what is taking place in terms of activity and what is going in and out of the area,” she demands.

For advanced technology areas, Sanderson notes that hyperspectral advances hold great promise for MASINT applications. This involves detecting information in many more spectral lines than currently collected. “We want to push that technology as far as it will go to understand a lot about our targets,” Sanderson emphasizes.

This goes beyond basic multispectral sensing. Hyperspectral detection can involve tens to hundreds of lines of resolution. But even this is not the ultimate goal of MASINT researchers. Sanderson notes that five to 10 years may bring about the dawn of ultraspectral sensing. This would feature as many as thousands of lines of resolution, which would provide unique identification of different types of target sets.

The organization also is engaged in considerable research into radar and radar systems. In addition, other sensors can generate seismic and acoustic signatures for identifying different types of vehicles, which can be critical to support for the warfighter.

On the application side, researchers are pursuing advanced means of detecting and identifying biological agents, which Sanderson describes as “critically important to understand these dangerous developments that are occurring around the world.” Laser collection is another important area, as experts strive to apply MASINT techniques to collect data on enemy low-power battlefield lasers. These types of lasers can dazzle or damage U.S. electro-optic systems as well as human eyesight, and Sanderson emphasizes the importance of collecting intelligence on laser power and wavelengths to help develop countermeasures.

Other laser research places the U.S. user at the safe end of the beam. Sanderson relates that laboratory research continues into using lasers as analysis systems that identify a target by reflected energy.

She notes that the CMO works with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the service advanced research laboratories and the Energy Department’s national laboratories. Congress has tasked the CMO with developing a five-year advanced research and development plan that coordinates the CMO’s overall research effort.

The organization aims to improve the product generated by existing MASINT sensors by a number of different means. Sanderson cites cross-cueing as a key approach in this area. This involves fusing data from several different types of sensors to detect, locate and identify a target. MASINT data can help direct other sensors to close in on a target.

Private industry can be a source of key technologies and expertise that help network these different sensor systems, Sanderson offers. The commercial sector also can provide solutions that process data more quickly. She cites techniques that help with target signature matching. “The partnership between ourselves and industry is going to be the key to our success,” she adds.

The organization’s involvement in operation Enduring Freedom and the war on terrorism have illustrated the need for rapid analysis and dissemination of its product, Sanderson allows. “We always have done a fine job of the in-depth look at what our MASINT analysis tells us,” she says. “What we [recently] have learned to do is put things into the hands of the users in minutes and, in some cases, hours, but not days. We have really pushed forward timeliness and accuracy.” Some MASINT data in Afghanistan has reached commanders and made a difference in operations—in some instances saving lives, Sanderson offers.

MASINT successes in Afghanistan have shown the way ahead for the organization, Sanderson observes. The ability to use MASINT information to help other imagery sensors collect data proved the worth of cross-cueing. “This has been a tremendous step forward for our entire intelligence community,” she declares.

The war on terrorism is being fought against an enemy that wages asymmetric warfare. Rather than negating the effectiveness of MASINT, this characteristic has brought about increased requirements for the intelligence discipline. Sanderson suggests that countering asymmetric foes may advance the need for persistent surveillance.

“If we have suspected camps, chemical plants or other types of facilities, we need the ‘long dwell’ of persistent surveillance,” she declares. She cites a need for unattended sensors that might provide a capability to cover these facilities so that analysts could understand the enemy’s activities around the clock. Currently, adversaries know how to counter occasional reconnaissance.

Combating low-technology adversaries such as al Qaida poses its own set of challenges. So, the CMO is setting its sights on detecting unintentional radiation. Unlike conventional MASINT material such as radio signals, unintentional radiation consists of telltale signs unwittingly given off by an adversary. These signs, currently undetected, may be laid bare by a set of tools currently under development, Sanderson offers.

These technologies would examine all sorts of unintentional radiation, she continues. “Everything has a temperature based on its energy level, and we can do a lot from that type of information.” This includes both the electromagnetic and the infrared spectra.

Not all CMO efforts are geared at unconventional adversaries. The organization also is advancing its capabilities against national militaries. One thrust is aimed at detecting and recording changes that help both locate and identify an enemy’s assets.

“The changes that an enemy produces in its environment have effects, and those effects can be measured,” Sanderson shares. Effects-based analysis, which features adding a single type of data to other data types, can provide a clearer picture of what an enemy is doing, she notes.

In its persistent surveillance role, MASINT will provide the necessary information on an enemy’s ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, Sanderson states. This surveillance will enable experts to understand an aircraft’s or a missile’s performance parameters and characteristics. The key may lie in knowing both composition and performance of an enemy’s assets, she adds. The deciding edge in a battle may be provided by information that defines the limitations of a delivery system.

Ensuring that these capabilities reach fruition will require another element in the government-industry partnership. In addition to serving as a font of innovation, industry can serve as a vital source of trained personnel. Sanderson explains that the growing MASINT community needs to be able to share industry’s talented personnel. She calls for a continuum where individuals enter government, learn about its needs and rotate back to the private sector with that understanding.

“We need a lot of IPAs [Interdepartmental Personnel Act workers] willing to come into government for a while and support us by bringing their very critical, highly technical skills into government,” she continues. These IPA individuals can enter government service for up to four years without committing to a full career in the federal sector. “We really need the talent and expertise in industry working with us … in government.”