A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fun With Google Earth: Middle Eastern Airbase Recon

It's probably just as well that our current IT regimen at MEI keeps me from having Google Earth on my work computer: otherwise I'd spend too much time doing what I was doing last night on the home computer, and which I'm about to explain here. (All images from Google Earth and copyright Google 2009.) And The Middle East Journal would not appear regularly.

Google Earth has given us all the sense that we've got the ability to task our own satellite intel; every schoolkid can get higher resolution photos of just about anywhere than Francis Gary Powers did in his U2* in 1960, and we don't have to worry about a Soviet show trial, prison, and an exchange in Berlin. [*Young'uns: U2 wasn't always a musical group.]

I think most people are at least vaguely aware that Google Earth may edit some of its imagery for security reasons. The roof of the White House may be edited a bit to exclude certain security measures; Groom Lake ("Area 51") doesn't show a lot, etc.

For some time I've been noticing some differences in handling of various Middle Eastern military facilities. This isn't a conspiracy theory: I'm simply noting that often the level of detail seems to be less for Israeli facilities than for Arab and even American military facilities in the Middle East. It may just be a function of available imagery, or it may be a concern for security, or it may be that the Israelis simply know when the satellites are overhead and keep their stuff in hangars.

Anyway, I thought I'd do a little introduction to the game of snooping on airfields via Google Earth. And I'd also like to remember, as a sort of coda to all this, the famous story that during the Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy was shown photos of Soviet and Cuban aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip on Cuban air bases. He was astounded that they would be left so vulnerable in a period of crisis, until he asked for similar photos of US aircraft in Florida. Also, of course, wingtip to wingtip.

So as not to be accused of bias, let's start with a control: before 9/11 Washington, DC did not even have a combat air patrol umbrella closer than Langley AFB in Newport News, Virginia; since 9/11 we've kept F-16s at Andrews, the same base which houses Air Force One, and they periodically have to intercept stray light aircraft that wander into DC airspace. So the nation's capital's first line of defense is a pretty important security consideration. And it's easy enough to find a good F-16 shot at Andrews, suggesting we don't censor Google Earth:

So what about the Middle East? As I think I've mentioned before I've spent a bit of my career as a defense journalist and covering defense and intelligence issues in the region, which means I still dabble occasionally. This post is such a dabble, and I hope will be entertaining and not get me on too many intelligence services' blacklists. Everything here is from Google Earth and is thus available to all imaginable adversaries of anybody, and is copyright by Google and hereby acknowledged as such.

Anyway, while most of the imagery isn't as sharp as the F-16 at Andrews above, which merely protects the US capital, the differences among the images can be interesting. Again, I'm not proposing any conspiracy theories.

A few years ago, when Google Earth was younger, there was a real anomaly around Israel's big Ramat David air base: just east of the easternmost runway, the imagery visibly degraded, and sharpened again to the west of the base, with everything in between a blur. At the same time you could see and identify aircraft types on Egyptian and Syrian bases. Now that was the time to propose conspiracies, but today the imagery of Ramat David is much sharper. Still, it doesn't show much. Ramat David is a huge base in the Jezreel Valley between Megiddo and Nazareth, but nothing's on the runways except a helicopter, and it's pretty blurred out:

I can't begin to guess even what kind of helicopter it is: something fairly small I suspect. Awfully fuzzy, though.

Lest you think that this is a US conspiracy to keep Google Earth from revealing Israeli secrets, let me assure you that imagery of US forces in the Middle East is much, much more detailed. As an example, the next photo below the Ramat David shot is of US helicopters at the US airbase at Taji, Iraq:

It's certainly possible these are the same type of helicopters, but the US choppers are sharper (and these images, somewhat degraded for web posting, are not as sharp as the originals).

It's not hard to find pretty good imagery of US aircraft on US bases in the region. Take for example a pretty sharp image of a C-17 military transport and a smaller C-130 both parked on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport:

Nice and sharp if I do say so myself.

Of course, Baghdad International is shared with a commercial airfield so it's not terribly secret or anything. And these aren't real time photos so nobody's going to be using them for artillery coordinates.

Still, how about a different combat zone? What kind of imagery is available in Afghanistan, for example?

Now we all know the biggest air base in Afghanistan is Bagram, kindly built for us by the former Soviet Union. (But then, they got to use our naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, so we're sort of even.) Here's a shot of Bagram:

Very clearly a line of A-10s (officially Thunderbolts, popularly Warthogs) on the left, and a C-130 on the right. Close air support and transport: the Afghan mission defined.

Now, again, I'm mostly having fun here, not trying to make any case that Israeli imagery is being especially fuzzed out, though a couple of years go it seemed a bit likelier that that was the case.

So far I've just looked at one Israeli base and a couple of US bases in the region. Let's extend our search a little bit, and see what we can find,

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, air bases in Egypt is Cairo West, where the US has enjoyed acccess facilities in the past. Here are some shots from Cairo West on Google Earth:

Fighters or trainers I think. Not the sharpest shot, but probably identifiable to a skilled intelligence officer, even from the low-res Google Earth shots.

Below is another shot from Cairo West, this time of transports. I think C-130s again, but the point is that a reasonable amount of information can be deduced even from the low resolution shots that Google Earth includes:

What I still find interesting is that the Israelis are either doing a better job of controlling what shows up on Google Earth, or, perhaps, of simply keeping their aircraft in hangers or revetments out of the sight of snooping satellites, than either the Egyptians or the US. Just for the fun of it, let's take a look at a Syrian Air Base, shall we? This is Damascus West, the air base out by the University, and it clearly shows a MiL helicopter that is much sharper than the Israeli helicopter shown above in the Ramat David photo:

But then, I haven't really shown much Israeli imagery so far. Ramat David had nothing on the tarmac except that fuzzy helicopter. And Ramat David is the biggest airbase in the north. Let's try an airbase in central Israel, Tel Nof. Tel Nof has been reported by various Western defense publications as being the location, at least in the past, of Israel's nuclear-armed aircraft. That's not confirmed and not necessarily current intelligence, but it makes Tel Nof a base worth considering. I scoured the Tel Nof imagery and couldn't see anything on the runway, unless the two black blobs below are something:

The trouble is, they could be anything from runway markings, to cars, to something deliberately obscured in the photo. I have no idea what they are.

Okay, I'll admit this post is mostly a fun tour of what you can find on Google Earth. The Israelis may just be better at hiding stuff than others are.

And it's not like there are no aircraft visible on any Israeli air bases. For example, on the air base (and Israel Aircraft Industries testing field) that shares runways with Ben Gurion International Airport, you can find a whole array of C-130s:

But if you compare the resolution of these C-130s with the ones above shown at Baghdad International, Bagram, and Cairo West, you'll see that the imagery is much more low-res or even degraded.

Okay, there's not a major point to be made here, but I've had some fun and hope you've enjoyed it. Now, just to wrap things up, I'll drop something else into the mix. One of the better-resolution Israeli air bases/sites on Google Earth is Palmachim, which is their ballistic missile testing and space launch site. It's hardly a secret since it lies just south of the Palmachim beaches, and sunbathers see every satellite launch or ballistic missile test. Looking at the Palmachim Google Earth images I don't see anything resembling gantries or a space launch pad, though I may be missing it, but I do see two compounds that look like this:

There are four buildings or hangars of some sort (the fourth is partly out of this shot), and another four to the south. They seem to be on short mini-runways of some sort. Not sure if this is connected with the missile program or not. (Maybe hangars for erector/launchers for missiles?) Just throwing it out as yet another of the fun things you can do with Google Earth. I'm also not sure what the structures/vehicles/objects are along the larger runway on the left.

Comments welcome of course, if you can comment without getting me in deep trouble with somebody's intelligence services.


Anonymous said...

Great point on your article, Israel is indeed much further distorted than anywhere else on the Google Earth program entirely! It's definitely because the Israelis don't want people knowing what goes on...but then, I've studied aircraft for the better part of 30 years, so I still know what's what there. :)

By the way, the F-16 shot you mentioned...is actually an F/A-18F Super Hornet. Just a heads-up.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


It looks like a single tail to me, and what would a Navy plane be doing at Andrews?

Anonymous said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond...life gets in the way. :)

Trust me...it's an F/A-18F Super Hornet. Compare...





As for what a Navy fighter would be doing at a USAF base, Navy planes land at McChord AFB in Tacoma, Washington (where I lived for 20 years) and McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas (where I was stationed for four years) all the time, for example. I was also at RAF Mildenhall in the UK for four years, and we actually have a Navy detachment there. I promise you, it happens frequently.

I have studied aircraft since I was 5...I am now 33. I have been around aircraft since I could walk, and worked on several types during my time in the USAF. I know my types, and it is an F/A-18F Super Hornet. Not even a single-seat E-model, it's an "F".

Anonymous said...

This isn't a conspiracy, it's US law, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act‏.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Israel signs agreements with many of the major satellite imagery providers to limit the resolution of satellite imagery put on the commercial market. And the US for that matter is limited by the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment.

But you're right, a skilled imagery analyst can still discern much of Israel's equipment on GE.

Anonymous said...

I'm a former Israeli air force technician.
What you see in the Palmachim photo, is is follows:
The brighter rectangle on the left is a line of AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
Between the choppers there's a vertical cement wall.

This has been videod and photographed multiple times on the ground by TV crews.
And in any case, the AH-1s have been retired by now, so this is not classified anymore.