The Visual Aircraft Recognition manual from the U.S. Army that the FAS posted a couple days ago continues to receive attention. After I posted about some of the many errors and inaccuracies in the document, others pointed out further shortcomings, and FAS wrote about it again, bringing the topic to the attention of many more people.

They describe the document as containing “numerous errors that may make the document worse than useless,” and I’m inclined to agree.

I’m not a big aviation buff, military or civil, but I know a little bit about the subject, and I have relatively decent Google skills. This is not a subject I’ve so far spent a lot of time on, but the entry for every aircraft I’ve looked up in the manual thus far contains errors. And I’m not even being super nitpicky, like 55 feet, six inches versus 56 feet, or things like that. RQ-1 Predator? The handbook doesn’t reflect it’s six-year-old capability to carry missiles. B-52 Stratofortress? Doesn’t reflect the removal of it’s tail turret and resulting decrease in crew size. And those are just two of our own systems.

The first foreign aircraft I looked up was the British Aerospace Hawk (a variation of which, admittedly, is used by the U.S. Navy.) FM 3-01.80 says it’s used by Brunei, Finland, Indonesia, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the UAE, the UK, and the USA, and that 175 were built. The first webpage I found on the Hawk lists the total production as 681, and other users as Australia, India, Canada, Switzerland, and Bahrain. I wouldn’t call that a little omission, by any means.

Others have pointed out the surprising listing of supposed A-10 Warthog (excuse me, Thunderbolt II) operators. Wikipedia correctly notes the U.S. as the sole operator of the A-10 and variants; I suspect Chile, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, South Korea, Thailand, Uruguay, and Vietnam are quite surprised to discover they, according to this Army handbook, supposedly operate this quite impressive aircraft as well.

I could go on and on with factual errors in the manual, but let’s turn our attention briefly to an example of more subjective issues with the data presented in this handbook. Two US-operated helicopters’ entries are good examples – no mention is made (though they’re shown in some of the pictures) on the AH-64 Apache and OH-58 Kiowa pages of the distinctive sensor arrays found above the rotors of many variants of these two airframes. Now, I know the manual stresses the recognition of “clean” aircraft, and warns of the difficulties of identifying “cluttered” aircraft carrying external stores, but I’ve found nothing online that suggests the big disco ball atop the AH-64D Apache Longbow is removable. In a manual on visual aircraft identification prepared by the Army, the omission of such a telling visual feature of an army-operated helicopter seems strange indeed.

The manual does, however, helpfully mention as an identification key to the AH-64 that the “blade tips are swept back.” I can only suppose this is one of the sensitive details whose release into enemy hands the document’s distribution restrictions were meant to protect. I mean, I’m no military expert, but in my limited experience, if the helicopter is flying, you’re not going to be able to see intimate details of it’s rotor design.

I don’t know what kind of fact-checking, if any, was performed before the manual was published. I have no idea what kind of review was done on it. As it stands, 323 of it’s 413 total pages are “worse than useless”, either verifiably inaccurate or tainted by doubt, and the vast majority of those errors did not require a military background, intelligence clearance, laborious fieldwork, or even intense research to catch and correct. If the field manual was fact-checked (which is a big if), the process was less useful than a couple of Google searches. As I pointed out in my previous post, the “facts” in this year-old handbook don’t just disagree with potentially questionable sources, they disagree with, among other things, “official” USAF public fact sheets.

If, as is generally the case, you treat .mil websites as “trusted sources”, then you can see this whole deal as not just a brief moment of mild embarassment for the Army, who produced this ridiculous thing, but as (yet another) victory for open-source intelligence. This hefty tome, with “For Official Use Only” printed on every page, with it’s ominous distribution restriction warnings and instructions on proper destruction, is less accurate, less useful, than a number of books you can buy off of, than public websites easily found thru search engines.

“Military intelligence” has long been a subject of much derision; “isn’t that an oxymoron?” many half-joke. But how bad have things really gotten when they can’t even provide our troops with accurate information about our, and our allies’, equipment? Do they not know how many crew our heavily-used bombers carry? Does our contingency planning for war with North Korea involve South Korea committing it’s fleet of non-existant A-10s? Or is it that nobody really cares about training and reference materials for our soldiers? Are other Army manuals as filled with errors as this one?

I hope not, I really do.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History, Security | on April 14th, 2007| Comments Off on Intelligence

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