The Navy Times reports in a long article dated Aug 19 that a maritime buff, Dan Twohig, found bird’s eye view imagery on Microsoft Virtual Earth showing the uncloaked propeller of a US Ohio class submarine in a dry dock. Dan posted about it to his website in early July, and also linked to the view:
These propellers designs are (were?) supposed to be a secret, and thus kept covered when out of the water. Navy Times interviews several people on the topic, and most sound fatalistic, except for a certain Norman Friedman. “a highly regarded authority and author on naval and military topics.” He blames everyone but the Navy for the mistake, if it is a mistake, and feels we should censor such imagery pre-emptively, just in case the Navy makes another mistake, or else the terrorists have already won:
“To make it easy for someone to get into a base like that is obscene. And that is something that can kill people. In huge numbers,” Friedman said. “Right now there are people out there in places like Waziristan who want us dead. They don’t have satellites, but they have wonderful fantasies. Why the hell make it easier for them?”
Because, you know, terrorists could really use a quieter submarine propeller. Elsewhere, he wonders “if the Navy has the temerity to go after Microsoft.”
Curiously, the Navy Times doesn’t reproduce the image of the propeller in the article, despite its self-described news value, nor does it link to Dan’s article, as netiquette would require. Isn’t that a bit the case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted? And it took my just five minutes of Googling to find the original source, based on information in the article. Meanwhile, the Russians, Chinese and everyone else with a satellite likely has that same image by now, and at a much higher resolution.
But is this propeller even such a secret? I’d like to offer an alternate reading, based on the assumption that such “mistakes” are too big to be made accidentally. Just as the Chinese probably put their new Jin-class submarine on show for the rest of the world to see, to ensure everyone knows that it exists and can act as a deterrent (China’s military has obviously studied Dr. Strangelove), that particular propeller on the Ohio class submarine could be a ruse, out of date, or a signal to the rest of the world that the Ohio class is indeed dead silent, and thus a very capable deterrent. That would be another reason why US intelligence is so sanguine on the matter.
(In fact, a new comment on Dan’s original post suggests that such propellers are out of date, replaced by ducted pump jet propulsion on all the latest US, French and US models.)
One more thing: I was disappointed by Microsoft’s meek comment when asked about censorship by the Navy Times:
Asked about their policy on publishing such imagery, Microsoft officials offered a statement claiming that the company is willing to blur such imagery if asked.
That’s a lot more pliant that Google’s own robust defence of such imagery.