Intelligence: Premature Paranoia

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October 24, 2013: In Lebanon Hezbollah recently reported that they had captured an Israeli spy. The enemy agent was an eagle with a miniature tracking device attached. These devices are used to track some types of animals, especially rare bird species, the better to understand how these animals live and how to keep them from going extinct. But in Middle Eastern nations there is a tendency to see such things as something more, especially if the markings on them are in English or Hebrew. Naturally that means American, British, and Israeli spies are involved, not scientific research into animal behavior. This sort of thing has happened frequently in the last few years. It’s not always birds. In 2010, the Egyptians accused Israel of training sharks to attack Arabs. Tagged vultures have been accused twice, first in 2011 in Saudi Arabia and in 2012 in Egypt (where stork was also accused). It’s not just the Arabs, in Turkey a kestrel was captured an x-rayed to ensure it was not carrying Israeli espionage equipment. 

Such suspicions are not completely unfounded, although inanimate objects are preferred to unpredictable and highly mobile animals. In 2012, Iran reported that security troops outside a new underground nuclear enrichment plant went to investigate a suspicious looking rock and the rock exploded. Later, investigation revealed that the rock was, indeed, not a real rock but an electronic device that was apparently monitoring activity around the nuclear facility (that enriched uranium sufficiently for use in a bomb) and transmitting it, via satellite, back to somewhere. The rock was also rigged to self-destruct if anyone got close.

The usual suspects for such a ploy were the Americans (who have been using the fake rock thing for decades) and the Israelis (who also use fake rocks and use them quite a lot in Lebanon). The Iranians were not only upset with the exploding rocks but also with how someone was blowing up electrical transmission towers and cutting off electricity of the underground nuclear facility. This happened twice in 2012. On top of all these explosions, Iran was also alarmed at the unending attacks by Cyber War weapons. Stuxnet was the first, but there have been several more and indications are that many of these weapons are at work inside Iran but as yet undetected. Again, the usual suspects include the United States and Israel. Britain is often included for nostalgia value.

As for the exploding rocks, details on stuff like that is rarely released and then usually after the item in question is retired. Some equipment of this sort does receive some publicity. Such was the case a decade ago with WolfPack. This is a 2.73 kg (6 pound) sensor/jammer that is dropped into enemy territory to get information and, if needed, jam enemy communications. These were painted camouflage colors but it would be no problem to enclose the device in a container that looked like a rock.

Hollywood isn't the only place where old hits are recycled. Such miniature gadgets were first developed and used in the 1960s. These early devices were just a microphone and transmitter. An aircraft overhead could pick up the transmissions, record them, and get them back to a base where the activity (trucks, troops marching, or whatever), where it occurred and the time, could be recorded. In this way operations along the carefully hidden (under the tall jungle canopy) "Ho Chi Minh" trail could be studied, plotted, and bombed. The trail, run by the North Vietnam through Laos (just west of Vietnam), was vital to keeping their troops in South Vietnam supplied.

WolfPack faced the same problem airdropped sensors in Vietnam did, the enemy will go looking for them once they realize the sensors were a danger to them. During the Vietnam War a partial solution to this problem was to build some of the airdropped sensors so they looked like a bamboo plant. This deception would not stand up to close scrutiny but the enemy troops were not going to closely examine every bamboo plant when they were sweeping an area for sensors. So this worked (except when, after the war, surplus sensors of this type were shipped to Europe for use there in a future war there).

When the WolfPack devices are dropped in enemy territory (or manually placed outside friendly positions), they will not only pick up electronic information but will be able to jam enemy signals (including cell phones) on command or as part of their programmed instructions. The ability of WolfPack units to detect other WolfPack units and form a network, and then collectively sort out who is doing what electronically, was a major advance in sensor and jamming warfare. Even if some of the WolfPack units were destroyed, the network would just reconfigure itself. The units cost ten thousand each and troops are supposed to try and recover them for reuse.

Russia was known to have adopted this "intelligent rock" technology after the 1960s, and is still using it. China probably has it as well and someone is using it in Iran. There has been some interest in planting bugs on animals but further research found that the animals’ movement were too unpredictable to be useful. Efforts to miniaturize sensors and transmitters for use on mechanical insects is still stalled by technology that is not quite ready to go yet. So Arab paranoia regarding monitoring devices hidden in animals (real or artificial) is not totally unfounded but somewhat premature.

 


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