Signatures and Profiles – these terms have serious and familiar meanings in criminal investigations, however they are both important in the context of national security – where they have considerably different applications.
In my recent posts I mentioned that the DIA has responsibilities in regard to the national signatures program. In that context signatures are highly technical – as illustrated in the linked description for a missile warnings systems facility which works towards the protection of U.S. Navy aircraft against hostile missile systems.
The same sort of signature work has to be done to address weapons threats to aircraft, ships, space assets and ground forces. As you can imagine the total inventory of weapons/threat signatures is vast and constantly changing. And in an age of drones, hyper-sonic missiles, and air and sea deployable smart weapons, life is becoming even more complex. Not only is the maneuverability of unmanned and swarm type drone systems hard to fathom, their ability to violate the previous norms of manned craft in terms of acceleration and deceleration is nothing short of amazing. If you watched the opening of the Winter Olympics and saw the mini-drones form shifting and moving complexes of actual figures, imagine that in terms of hostile action rather than three dimensional real time imaging. But that is only half of the issue.
The other half of the security equation is threat profiling. Even if you can track something, even if you can detect and classify elements of its signature, when do you act against it as a threat? To illustrate that point I’ll give three examples. First, when the Japanese carrier launched air armada was closing in on Pearl Harbor it was detected by radar, and reported. The radar was mapping a large swarm of aircraft, moving towards Pearl Harbor…signatures were clear. But the signature also matched, so some extent, flights of incoming bombers from the American west coast and was not acted on. And the radar sighting was not “fused” with actual Navy attacks on unidentified submarines that same morning (these days we have warnings “fusion centers” which are supposed to allow us to avoid such mistakes). The military in Hawaii had spent a good bit of time profiling carrier attacks against the island but until all the pieces were put together at the same time the threat was not noted – and then it was far too late.
Another example comes from the Atlanta Olympics, during that event there was extensive security discussion about attacks by hijacked aircraft. The issue of signature and identification was brought up and the issue of aircraft tracking was immediately raised – since the American air defense network had been discontinued, it would all depend on aircraft based transponders and if a transponder was turned off the signature disappeared. The Air Force had profiled and practiced attacks by commercial airliners, but only airliners with operational transponders. Because no threat profile for silenced aircraft was developed, no tactics were developed in response to such a threat – a failure which became dramatically apparent in 2001.
All of which brings me back to the fact that if nothing else, recent revelations have brought us three very interesting real life incidents in which Navy pilots – and in two instances, entire Navy carrier strike groups – have encountered unidentified aerial objects which provide an illustration of what happens when signatures and profiles don’t match anticipated threats. Details of the incidents are still emerging and the extent to which other instances have happened may never become public. What we do know is that in one instance a carrier strike group performing pre-deployment exercises off southern California experienced overflights of unknowns at extremely high altitudes over a period of several days. The flights involved from three to nine objects, tracked by radar at 80,000 feet and at speeds of ten to one hundred miles an hour. That radar signature doesn’t really match any foreign weapons systems so the tracks were simply treated as anomalies.
But after a few days the objects began to be tracked in descents from eighty thousand feet to twenty thousand feet at speeds, and with G forces, beyond that of any known device (tens of thousands of mph and with G loads of close to 50). The objects were then radar tracked descending to sea level and moving up and down including simply holding position, motionless. Again, this profile matches no known threat.
Ultimately, when more objects were detected descending into an area where carrier group air exercises were being conducted extended, the issue was classified as a potential safety hazard and interceptors were dispatched to identify the devices. What happened at that point is another story indeed, the objects were imaged and recorded in both visual and infrared as well as radar tracked by the interceptors. And absolutely none of the technical signatures or observed performance made any sense. These incidents were indeed transmitted to DIA and pertinent records such as radar scope videos were secured. Which leaves us with one more, hopefully minor, national security mystery. However given the fact that we don’t appear to possess any weapons systems that could deal with such devices, it would probably be best if they don’t turn out to be a threat. It’s just not good when you have a signature and a profile of what appears to be, at a minimum, ferreting operations by an unknown source – but you literally can’t do anything about it.