Murphy's Law: Google Earth In Pakistan


August 2, 2009: The Pakistani Air Force admitted that they have been using Google Earth to locate targets, and help guide pilots operating in the tribal territories. The Pakistani government has never been flush, thus any major mapping effort in the tribal territories, never got done. So, like many of the players in this war, including the Americans, the Pakistanis use Google Earth. No one in the military is surprised anymore by this. In the last four years, Google Earth ( has revolutionized military intelligence, but the military doesn't like to admit it. But by putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy-to-use fashion, Google Earth has made much more information available to military professionals (and terrorists, and criminals and academics, etc), who quickly appreciated what a splendid new tool they had.

To the U.S. Department of Defense, Google Earth's major problem was not it's ease-of-use, but the manner in which it showcased the shortcomings of the American NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency). The NGA is responsible for taking the satellite photos, spiffing them up as needed, and getting them to the troops. Trouble is, the stuff still isn't getting to the troops that need it, when they need it. This was made very obvious when Google Earth showed up, and demonstrated how you can get satellite images to anyone, when they need it, with minimal hassle.

For over two decades, the generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery", have been complaining about the difficulty they have in getting their hands on this stuff. Hundreds of billions of dollars has been spent on photo satellites since the 1960s, and the troops always seem to get leftovers, if anything. Yet the satellite people regularly con Congress out of more money so they can build more satellites, and neat systems that will get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods never arrive, or never arrive in time. Generals gave angry testimony before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 war. The satellite people seemed contrite, and said they would make it right. If given the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing.

Now the troops got access to Google Earth, and have seen what they have been missing. To make matters worse, the software Google Earth uses to get the job done, was first developed for the NGA. But the way the NGA operates, you have to worry about security considerations, and all manner of bureaucratic details, before you can deploy a useful tool. The troops are fighting a war, you say? Well, we still have to deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight. But now the troops are beating NGA over the head with Google Earth, and Congress took notice. However, NGA bureaucrats are close at hand, and the angry troops are far away. Progress is still slow. But at least the troops have Google Earth, unfortunately, so does the enemy.

But, as has been demonstrated in Pakistan, while the Taliban may have access to Google Earth, they don't have access to F-16s. In the last ten weeks, Pakistani F-16s have flown over 400 sorties against Taliban targets in the Swat valley, and Waziristan. Google Earth showed the pilots what they were bombing, and how a pilot would see it. The U.S. supplied the Pakistanis with high quality aerial cameras, and soon the Pakistanis had high quality (and higher resolution than Google Earth) digital photos of the key areas their bombers were operating over. But Google Earth remained the go-to tool when some obscure area, that the expensive U.S. cameras had not gone over yet, suddenly showed up as a potential new target. The Pakistanis are also using more laser guided bombs. While their accuracy reduces civilian casualties, you need detailed aerial photos of the target area, before you send the F-16s in. Another problem the Pakistanis have is that they have no bombers that can operate at night. So the Taliban tend to move at night.



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