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08 October 2008

Plus ca change, edition naval

Recent coverage of the after-effects of the Russian military occupation and what one mightt call the “de-militarization with extreme prejudice” of the Georgia naval facility at Poti has been exceptionally thorough, not least of which due to the effects of the new media and the emerging class of citizen journalists who work within this media. Via Wired’s Danger Room, we note the exceptional detail offered by Gavin Sheridan, following onto earlier reporting and video via Georgian media channels and the incomparable Armchair Admiral.

The reporting brought to mind one of the early publicly disseminated products from the Office of Naval Intelligence. The piece was itself an early OSINT product, a translation of a German commander’s comments on a naval engagement which occurred at Santiago, Cuba during the Spanish – American War in 1898. The contemporaneous open source information environment had already seen American narratives of the action published, alongside detailed order of battle and combat effects. The German account circulated shortly thereafter, during the early months of 1899. With the concurrence of ONI’s Chief Intelligence Officer, a translation of the work was reprinted in the 25th volume of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings that March, providing extensive observations that were no doubt of significant intelligence value regarding the disposition of forces and TTP which featured in the engagement.

The following excerpt captures well the flavour of the account:

The three ships inspected had all their guns on board. The only ones that could not be found were the two 7-centimeter rapid-fire boat guns, but pivots had been provided on both sides of the stern, where these two guns were apparently intended to be installed for use against torpedo-boat attacks at night. From the slight losses which the American ships claim to have sustained, it may be judged that the training of the Spanish gun crews must have been very inadequate. This is not surprising, in view of the statement of one of the Spanish naval officers to the effect that no target practice is held in Spain in time of peace. Other circumstances also give evidence of very inefficient handling of the guns. The turrets and their guns, with the exception of the forward turret of the Almirante Oquendo, were found entirely intact. The loading apparatus for the 28-centimeter guns (Whitworth, Manchester, 1895) was of the hydraulic order, and the loading time was about two minutes. The 14-centimeter rapid-fire guns also were probably not used to their best advantage, owing to want of experience. There was evidently no lack of ammunition, for near some of the guns a number of cartridges were found, and some of the guns were still loaded, but had not been fired. To what circumstance it is due that the breech-blocks of two of the guns were found lying in the ear of the guns with their pivot bolts torn off, could not be explained. Perhaps this may also be attributed to inefficient handling of the projectiles. Only the port side of the ships was fired upon. The star-board side shows but a few holes, where shots have passed out. Where the course of projectiles could be traced, it was usually ranging from port aft to starboard forward. The destructive effect of the American projectiles is mainly due to the conflagrations caused by them. Aside from a shot through one of the turret roofs, no hits were observed in any of the armored turrets. Neither have any projectiles pierced the side armor, which shows no injuries. Only indentations are noticeable in places where projectiles have struck the armor. Projectiles of 15 centimeters and larger calibers that had hit the ship had in many instances gone out through the other side, making holes about 1 meter square, but without bursting. As the same observation has been made in the bombardments of Santiago and San Juan, it may be assumed that it is due to the uncertain functioning of the base fuse. It is not probable that the Americans used armor-piercing shell, as fragments of projectiles of different sizes found in the vicinity show that explosive shell and not nonexplosive shell were used. Projectiles which had hit smokestacks and masts had gone clear through, making only small, round or oblong shot holes. Hits of small-caliber projectiles (5.7-centimeter) could be noticed in large numbers, and this was corroborated by the statement of an American officer to the effect that they were used in great quantities. The question whether the Spanish had any intention of making use of the torpedo weapon may probably be answered in the negative. The torpedo armaments of the ships, although including a large number of tubes, were so defective that there could hardly be any chance of success as against the powerful American ships. The armaments consisted of two bow, four broadside, and two stern tubes, all above water and of antiquated design, with large cartridges, band-brakes, etc., all located above the armored deck and entirely unprotected. In a very primitive manner the tubes had been partly protected by grate bars lashed with chains. The projectiles were 35-centimeter Schwartzkopff torpedoes with large depth-regulating apparatus. No war-heads were to be found, with a single exception. According to the statement of an American petty officer, the warheads had been left at Santiago, where they were to be used in connection with the mine obstructions. It is true that this does not agree with the fact that a torpedo head exploded on board the Almirante Oquendo. It is possible, however, that the ships retained one or two war-heads to be used in case of necessity as against rams, since the broadside tubes were adapted to be turned in any direction, or perhaps it was the commander's wish to take a war-head along. The following points support the assumption that it was not the intention to make use of the torpedo weapon : a. Not one of the tubes still in existence was loaded, and all the tubes were closed. In the tubes destroyed by shots or otherwise no remnants of torpedoes were found. b. The remaining torpedoes, almost without exception, were lying in their places along the ship's side. No torpedoes were found lying back of the tubes, with the exception of the bow tubes of the Almirante Oquendo. c. There was no pressure in any of the flasks. This is shown by the fact that the flasks were entirely uninjured, although the heat had partly melted the tailpieces of the torpedoes. d. In several of the torpedoes lying on top, the protecting cap for the depth-regulating apparatus had not been taken off, while it is necessary to remove it in order to put on the war-heads. e. In a few of the torpedoes the sinking valves had been put in place, but in most of them they were still found soldered, with connecting links raised. The tubes for filling the launching cartridges were not connected and only on the Almirante Oquendo was the powder charge in readiness.”

Of course, there is little chance that an open source intelligence product of a similar nature would freely circulate today from ONI (or even OSC). ONI was somewhat unusual in this regard, and it is certain that a substantial percentage of the readership of its early products – available through the Government Printing Office – served the private sector as well, given the importance of maritime commerce and its shipping to the Republic. Consider it among the earliest public-private sector critical infrastructure protection partnerships. (We have already documented the interest from a variety of business entities in this kind of intelligence coverage, for which industry sectors had already established their own independent private intelligence functions. These shops were no doubt grateful for dissemination of related government production on matters on mutual interest.)

However, high quality direct access reporting from bloggers and privatized intelligence shops is far more readily accessible in this digital age than the laboriously copied and translated pages of one hundred and ten years ago. While there is a certain quality missing that marked the earlier accounts of professional naval officers, one must admit that raw data conveyed well carries its own sort of quality, particularly when handheld and motion imagery are available. No doubt translations of such reporting will circulate for some time to come among the various European naval forces concerned with potential future action on the Black Sea.

It is examples such as this which increasingly convince us that we are not undergoing a revolution in intelligence affairs, as some commentators might suggest, but rather the re-emergence of older intelligence forms in new contexts enabled by technological innovation.

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