Microsoft’s bird’s eye view catches Navy propeller

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 Strangelove), that particular propeller on the Ohio class submarine could be a ruse, out of date, or a signal to the rest of the world that the Ohio class is indeed dead silent, and thus a very capable deterrent.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.

61 thoughts on “Microsoft’s bird’s eye view catches Navy propeller”

  1. “just in case the Navy makes another mistake, or else the terrorists have already won”

    what does the propeller shape have to do with terrorism??? this is such a good example of the hype certain people are creating about secrecy and limiting the rights for citizens!!!!….

  2. If they’re all that concerned about what a sensor sees — then they’d better start pointing the finger in the appropriate direction — which is toward themselves, for not covering up the design.

    The voters here recognize the truth. The sooner they recognize it, the better off they’ll be come elections.

  3. The ability to conduct clandestine operations with a mobile platform is a product of Billions of US Dollars and thousands of man hours. This is another example of the gross misunderstanding that Freedom of speech trumps the security that provides it. Wake up ! The ability to plan and exploit weakness in any security system is Greatly added by having Satilite vantage over any sensitive location. Including how to box people into a city by timed explosions etc. Do we really need or want this information in the hands of the extreeme? As far as foriegn governments having the information already, what basis are you making that assumption? Yes, there was an epic screwup on the Navy’s part, but do we really want to run through the streets naked everytime someone makes a mistake? Just a thought.

  4. Don’t bother trying Rich. Too many people would cut off their noes to spite their faces. When the day comes where we have to circle the wagons. People who are now screaming about censorship just may be left out of the circle to fend for themselves. They would be too much a liability for the rest of us.

    Daniel….nice generalized comment. Voters(which ones?) recognize the truth….hahaha too fun and too misinformed.


  5. I’m nitpicking here, but censoring imagery that is collected for you (MS Birds Eye) vs. imagery that you’re licenced to use (Google)is a completely different. Calling MS response ‘meek’ and then lauding Google is just plain silly. To find a comparable scenario you need to look at Google StreetView. Google has said anyone can request Google to remove or obscure (i.e. censor) images in StreetView. That seems to be the exact same position that MS took with Bird’s Eye images. Google likes to fight the good fight and use their reputation and money to further the public good. They should be lauded for that… but in this case your support is mis-placed.

  6. How ridiculous to assume that foreign

    governments don’t already have this basic intelligence. And to suggest that the U.S. Navy isn’t well aware that there are satellites that spy on us, and wouldn’t take the necessary precautions on such a simple procedure, is borderline offensive. If this was a threat to national security, they would have covered it.

  7. Just read the Navy Times article. Typical Navy, they don’t even realize that the Virtual Earth birds eye image was shot from a plane. With airspace restricted around the base, I’d be interested in the trigonometry to show where the plane was in relation to the base.

    Have to love that Pictrometery sensor platform.

  8. I was thinking the same thing. How close and where was the plane.

    If the propeller was intentional de-masked, for whatever reason. I would think the military would take into consideration what assets in space and air are in relation to them. If the space was clear at the time, they sure did mess up and not secure the air.

    More than likely, someone messed up and didn’t cover it back up after whatever work was done.

    If the military isn’t tracking or informed as to what is in the air(like these Pictrometery planes) around them. I bet they will be now.


  9. Stefan.

    I think you took Norman Friedman quote out of context. And implied something different than what he said or meant.

    I don’t think he was referring to the propeller in particular. More the fact, anyone and his brother can view the base.

    Here is the part from the article….

    “”In a way, Friedman agrees. He doesn’t believe the propeller issue means that much when compared to the proliferation of detailed photographs of sensitive military installations, from submarine piers to combat bases in Iraq.

    “I’d be less interested in the propeller and more about someone who can casually take pictures and figure out how the place is laid out,” he says. “Forget about the propeller. Think about the security arrangements on the base.”””


  10. so what if this or other bases are on GE or M$ BE view….

    anyone can rent a plane or drive by the base….

    today one can fly by the base with a model plane @ 1000ft and take super high rez pic of anything without anyone from security noticing… those little planes @ 1000ft can’t be heard and don’t show on a radar screen…

    people, wake up, don’t buy into the terror hype paranoia talk…

    if the navy or any other security needy organization is lax on their security protocols they should blame it on others… to cover stuff up with simple means like cloth is done on car prototypes very successfully… why not on military stuff??? of course they do that and this propeller isn’t top secret anymore…

    to call for 6 months to 3 years old footage to be censored is just silly?

    if any organization needs this type of action is ineffective!!!

    good top secrecy changes their protective routine every day or week or month… if not they get complacent and make it easy for any spy to get to the secrets… it’s this simple…

    google earth actually keeps pressure on those people to stay sharp and change their routines… for professionals there’s a basic rule: once you fall into routine your dead!!!

  11. This is definitely not unusual. I was a contractor for Navy Region Northwest, home of Bangor Submarine Base. We flew hi-res aerial photography for the base for an ArcIMS application. We told the Navy several times when were going to be flying the shoot. One the day we shot the imagery, we got a photo very much like the one you see here with the screw exposed!!!

  12. I’ll mention this once and see where it adds to the discussion.

    The most valueable form of imagery for intel, is in fact off-nadir imagery — that which is taken at an azimuth angle that is not typical of the imagery we see used in a vis-application like Google Earth. This is for a variety of reasons — mainly mathematical in nature, but also because canopy can often be noted when certain objects are analyzed.

    Also to note: Off-nadir imagery is often taken from space for analytical purposes.

    Now. Which commercial organization is supplying the public with a unique, off-nadir vantage-point, and at high resolutions?

    To me, that is the more potential problem to consider in such a debate. Nadir and near-nadir imagery doesn’t affect me as critically as off-nadir imagery does, because they serve (or fulfill) distinctly different purposes.

  13. Daniel…the company is

    As to who took the actually photo, a sub-contractor or the company above, not sure in this case.

    And happily surprised to see your comments in the last paragraph. Thought we lost you to the ether. :)


  14. What you didn’t like my misdirection. :) I know who you were actually referring to, the nice guys(cough) from the NW.

    As to who you use to work for, no and it doesn’t really matter.


  15. That will be the day when the Navy doesn’t know they can be seen today!

    What needs to be hidden, is hidden.

  16. This is so American it’s funny. “Ooh, the baddies are spying on our super duper ultra top secret ice cream!” As if the baddies can’t find out about tech specs of military hardware without MS’s assistance. After all, all the high tech mambo jumbo hasn’t done much good in Iraq, where you face simple old-fashioned men with guns…

    So pathetic….

  17. The whole issue is irrelevant. The propeller for the Ohio-class sub was designed over 25 years ago, using what we would call ‘outdated’ machining equipment. It’s hardly state-of-the art in silent propulsion. The newer, quieter subs (Seawolf & Virginia classes) are using pumpjets and are totally superior to this ‘old’ technology. They are the top-secret stuff now.

  18. the thing is, that propeller shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. anime designers have depicted submarines with such propellers for at least a decade.

  19. I would think that what you don’t want are photos that help people build mockups. You can then lay out things, even as simple as wood stakes in some field or just drawn on paper, and use a stopwatch and have people run ‘experiments’ to look for weaknesses, seeing how to infiltrate the given location. When you have people who don’t need an exit strategy (suiciders) that alone makes their missions not just twice as easy but maybe 100’s of times!

    So to me, partially because the photo isn’t detailed enough, the prop is the least valuable intel. But maybe if . . . oh wait! I just have a plot for a new novel. :-)

  20. I have no problem with this picture because anyone with ‘malicious’ intent has this pic & anything else they want, (anyway).

    A book from the 80’s, penned by s former ‘seal-team’ leader, (a Mr. Marcinkus, if memory serves), discussed how seal-teams have routinely penetrated supposed secure sites, (like Trident bases & submarines), during rediness security tests and, so the story goes, the situation was so obvious & embarrasing to the D.O.D. that this patriotic american soldier-sailor was jailed for his ‘uppityness’.

    …The real, though unaddressed security issue is: Hoiw do we control the military on earth so that all the ‘nation-states’ don’t manage to kill or bankrupt, (all…), the rest of us?

  21. 20 plus years ago Japanese industrial giant Toshiba sold cutting edge CNC technology to the Ruskies so they too could produce silent propellers for their subs. As a result of the firestorm in the U.S., Toshiba offered thousands of laptop computers to American citizens, mostly those in the computer trade. Fast forward to the 90’s and American taxpayers absorbed a large percentage of the cost of destroying those same subs after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Go figure.

  22. i love the proliferation of US citizens who proclaim “..the terrorists might use that”.

    wake up america, you voted in a government driven by propaganda, and the “terrorists” have obviously won.


  23. Is it me or does the angle of the face of the propellor look different than the angle should be if attached to the sub? Looks to me like a fake.

  24. American talk about terrorism is so ludicrous to countries that have had it a while.

    For a start it seems a bit far fetched that the ‘terrorists’ would target armoured, monitored, military hardpoints when you can bomb a shopping mall to greater effect (remember kids, they don’t have the manpower or hardware to actually conquer your country. All they can do is make your lives unpleasant).

    Secondly, terrorists are not interested in top of the line, hi-tech, strategic hardware. What? Are the terrorists thinking: “Great, now our super silent nuclear warhead toting submarines will be able to detect america’s and wipe them out with LA-SERS?” Thy have GM vans loaded with fertiliser bombs. They don’t want to know.

    This information is valuable to similarly hi-tech forces like Russia and China – neither of which can enter a frontal conflict with the US because: a) they’d get their asses whipped so hard it isn’t funny and b) because they are all constrained by nuclear deterrant.

  25. The only people who are interested in advanced sub propeller design would be the Russians and the Chinese.

    Russia and China already have their own (much higher resolution) spy satellites in place. These satellites are continuously photographing our sensitive military installations.

    In other words: Too late.

    I think maybe by GoogleEarth/MS-SpySat photographing these things, maybe the Navy will (finally) start covering up their top secret stuff, in order to prevent it being seen.

    Not allowing Joe Schmoe to see the images is pointless. Joe Schmoe can’t make an advanced submarine. Even Mustaffah Achmed Schmoe can’t produce an advanced submarine. The only people interested are China and Russia (I can’t emphasize this enough) and they already have photos of the propeller if the Navy is being this bone-headed and sloppy.

    MS did the Navy a huge favor by pointing out the Navy’s own idiocy. Maybe satellites in the public realm will prompt the Navy to do what it should have been doing all along: Trying to keep secrets ‘secret’, rather than flaunting new technology in the open. I mean: Damn!

  26. It wasn’t a satellite which took the picture.

    For me, it isn’t so much the sub. It’s more being able to view the base itself in high detail and from multiple angles. I guess the military will have to rebuild their bases ever year or two, inorder to keep people off guard.

    But really who cares, we have more important things to worry about. Like all those govt abuses, *sigh*. The govt only abuses its people under the evil Bush administration. Never happened under “our guy” terms or won’t happen under “our gal” term. *laughs way too hard* Note to self: hope people wake up and get out of the giggle weeds.

    Granted there is a small chance/percentage of govt abuse, just as there is a small chance/percentage of bad people(terrorists, criminals, or others) using this technology for ill. I’m more worried about bad people than govt, at this point in time.

    Have people been following the Ohio store story? Or better yet, the potential use of this technology in planning attacks on schools. Which is a very current threat, the govt doesn’t want people to know. We do know, people have school floor plans and there has been active surveillance of schools. Plus who knows what else they have info wise, generated or other.

    And people say this technology isn’t useful. A wacky out kid could create as much as a problem as a organized group or nation. So it isn’t all about terrorists.

    Wait I know, like with our military bases, why don’t we do what we did back in WW2. Mask the schools and rearrange the layout(inside and out) from time to time. Keep them off guard. Ya right, that won’t work due to scale and costs. Plus you would have that small crowd complaining about not being about to view those facilities if masked. We can’t trust the govt, we must have our eyes on them at all times. Those evil Bushies.

    I guarantee the same people who don’t think these issues are anything to worry about. Will be the same ones after something happens(especially if it effects then directly), scream why didn’t govt do more, threaten lawsuits, and bitch and moan. And frankly their complaints will fall on deaf-ears.

    We must be proactive(within reason), we can’t be reactive. Reactive is too late.

    The right to life trumps all other rights or supposed rights(looking at pretty pictures). For example, seat-belt laws. You have the right to do whatever with your body, but not when it has the potential to effect others. Like, losing control of your vehicle because the person isn’t in their seat;i.e. no seat belt on.

    I’m not sure what is a good solution or solutions. I guess since we can’t offend peoples “right” to use this technology or view “pretty pictures”. Then we must identify and kill(preferred) or jail those who plan to use this technology/info for ill/bad before they get a chance.

    My early Monday ramblings.


  27. On an offshore cruise near San Diego last year, the captain mentioned that the City had commissioned someone to take some sample shots of the cityscape for a promotional brochure. The cover shot turned out to be a water level view of a similar propeller. Only after releasing the brochure, did the Navy get after the City for the release, but that cat had already cleared the bag.

  28. Do you think other countries have scientists and engineers with meatballs for brains. just looking at it i’d say it’s a crook design, even i could design something better than that dishwashing fan.

  29. I wonder how many Terrorists have Nuclear Submarines? I bet there are hundreds of terrorists running around under the ocean in the nuclear submarines. Since none have been detected, they probably have better and more silent propellers. The spy satellites should be parked in geosynchronous Orbit over the dry docks where they get all their work done, and take pictures to see why they are so quiet, and why they have been able to avoid detection.

  30. Now you’ve done it. You’ve given away to America’s enemies that our submarines use propellers.

  31. look

    the subs in DRY DOCK

    that’s not a mistake

    the San Diego one was, sub propellers ARE supposed to be covered while docked in port and one guy was a little late to his job, but do you really think the whole chain of command forgot when they moved the sub in the picture to dry dock?

  32. I well remember when Toshiba sold our super quiet screw technology to the Soviet Union in the height of the cold war. It cost us billions and made tracking Soviet missile subs much more difficult. I thought at the time we should have cut our aid to them and abrogated our defense treaties. I had bought several Japanese cars prior to that. I have not bought one since.

  33. Thats a really impressive propeller, very long thin blades with a really 3D profile. If you look carefully you can see that the leading edges are almost like fangs, they look razor sharp and they face forward. The truth of it is I bet this propeller is really efficient – they should put some of this technology on ships.

    As for secrecy – forget it. A machine I know a little about is the Apache 64HA full of secrets until anyone took a picture of it. The military almost don’t bother with those kind of secrets today. A few months ago I saw a program that showed a lot of the structure and avionics and internals and even some of the software of the Eurofighter and thats still brand new. Secrets there still are but they are more commercial today than military. – Rob

  34. Bob-G, you fool, US aid to Japan was suspended in the ’60s..but I’m sure you wish your morally and financially bankrupt banana republic had those billions back today, huh?

    Good luck with that ;)

  35. ya need to observe the photograph a bit closer, look closely at the propeller the center is off by a drudge n.. which means a bunch it was slipped into p[lace.. If the navy let this continue then realize it is for the enemy the terrorists demise..

  36. Aww c’mon guys. It is responsible to be careful with everything of a questionable nature with regard to national security. Who the heck knows that the prop of a sub is classified? Ok so 30 years ago it was classified, I am sure by now it is well known and the navy’s position on this is one of posture that is necessary. This is right up there with using a scanner to report to the TV and radio news the location of drunk checkpoints or illegal alien checkpoints. Did it ever occurr to anyone that some things are better off left unsaid, even if you know about them? Use your brains people- I have lots of friends out there in the oceans working on those submarines protecting your right to disclose sensitive information about the very submarines they are serving on. Does this make any sense to you? just some more clueless people doing what their clueless selves do. Oh thats right , your brains didnt tell you nothing about what not to do for the sake of your country.

  37. It can’t be much of a secret when every submovie that exist already shows subs with that design.

  38. The real issue here, boys and girls, is that divulging the actual chord shape and angle of attack of the propeller blades may enable our adversaries to make quieter submarines. You know those nice Chinese and Russian guys who have their thermonuclear missiles pointed at our homes? Well, our navy depends on their being as noisy as possible so that they don’t give our guys the slip and be free to launch before being sunk. That’s what the big deal is. It’s not about the Islamofascist terrorists…

  39. Most of you obviously have never been in the navy, or anywhere near a submarine. Your general assumptions of things are way off base, but then again it supposed to be that way. I’m completely content to go on doing my job knowing that I am protecting your rights to such ignorance.

  40. Well as a former submariner, the screw (not propeller) is required to be covered shortly after entering drydock and shall remain covered until it is prudent to remove (we used to ask the divers to grab it when we flooded up). So maybe the Navy needs to look at their own program failure.

  41. ho — hum — repeat again.

    a lot of noise and nothing. i used to sit on rocks (fishing) in Puget Sound and watch the Tridents leave on patrol. Yawn —- again.

    They didn’t even bother to submerg until miles out. You should see the wake they left. Couldn’t a person with a 2 year engineering degree and a pair of $2.00 (spy) glasses figure out a design that chunned up that much water.

    Just a thought.

  42. It’s an impressive propeller shape but far from totally secret. I’m sure there is a lot of sophisticated engineering in the materials and shape but a curved, multi-bladed propeller much like that has been seen in movies ( The Abyss ). Check it out.

    So, the general shape is well known but the devil is in the details. It probably takes a supercomputer to develop the very, very sophisticated shape details needed to insure quiet performance. The picture from Google earth doesn’t contain the details.

  43. Phil, thanks for your comments and your service to the good old US of A. I spent close to a decade working in, on and around the Subs (Radioman when they still had radiomen…) – and was even on newcom crew for one of the Tridents – top of the line back then. In my experience the props were almost always covered while out of the water – even during most prop maintenance. Good thing the subatomic cloaking system is not visible from the air. Military specialties often include both smoke and mirrors ;)

  44. Dan Twohig being a maritime buff should have known the sensitivity of his discovery and notified the appropriate authorities to correct the situation. What does he do with his discovery paste it all over the internet for the entire world to view real smart not. The granted the billions of dollars and untold amounts of labor that where just wasted are not the real cost. The cost of that screw has been paid in blood many times over and there is no monetary figure that can be assessed to there loss. Mr. Dan Twohig I hope that you can sleep nights knowing that you just gave away a major deterrent to all of our safety.

  45. Why don’t we just put the plans for the subs – and the stealth bombers and fighters, and our strategic defense capability, and whatever else – on Google and NetScape and everywhere else? The media since Vietnam has been indifferent to the damage they cause in pursuit of “news”. If our current media ethos was the norm in World War II, we’d all either be goose-stepping and speaking German or dead in concentration camps. We DO have a right to know; we also have the obligation to not want to know too much. Loose lips sink a lot more than ships.

  46. Did anyone here really sit down and watch the movie (Clancy). Red October.

    Pleasssse, forget the “national security” stuff. The British, French, Russia, China, etc all have the tech knowledge. You people are forgetting the CIA spies that were paid a lot of money to sell stuff to Russia. They are in jail, yes but the knowledge is already out there. Find something else to talk about. Oh — yea – forgot. Those same spies also told the Russians were the Tridents were actually hiding.

  47. Who need satellites? Maybe we should burn all the Thomas Brothers maps just in case a terrorist might use one to plan an attack.

  48. Knowing the geometry could aid in detection as sonar engineers could possibly determine what sounds/sound ranges to listen for. The issue goes much further than a propeller. We used to be able to track Bin Laden by his cell/sat phone traffic until the news media revealed this was being done. No surprise, once this was revealed he changed tactics to avoid detection. Some things need to stay out of public/world knowledge, especially when it could result in the loss of lives in the USA and around the world. Keep as many advantages as possible when facing an enemy.

  49. Y’all have bad information. The props are covered not because of their design but because they are unique. The angles at which the blades are set are subtley different from each other so each one makes a different sound, like the difference between a V8 and a V6. Their uniqueness gives them a signature which can be recognized and tracked – so you know if it’s a friendly sub or not, and which sub it is if it’s a friendly one. If the prop is being scrapped, it’s not secret anymore. Furthermore, the props are periodically swapped from sub to sub. So you only need to cover it if it will be returning to water. That prop will be changed and covered shortly before it returns to water, if it ever does.

  50. If you look closely at the picture, the screw is off-center and out of alignment, not to mention way too big to belong to that sub. Who is trying to make a big deal out of a fake foto. All this security balogna is for naut. It’s no wonder that the navy didn’t pay much attention. What a bunch of well-meaning dummies.

    Gringo Bob

  51. What people don’t realize is how little a good engineer has to see to reverse engineer something. Basically if you really want to keep any military secrets today you have to keep them hidden in a box, and even then …

    I’m sure there’s no real threat anywhere in that photo, as others have said the Russians and Chinese would already have had intelligence on the prop, and as for base layout.. If a terrorist group could break into a nuclear sub base then surely layout would be a pretty trivial matter (hint- it would take a small army).

  52. Your a Jerk for posting this. Even if no one can use it, it’s Anti American for u to show the image knowing there is some chance for some other country to try to use it. U should feel ashamed.

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