Lending You Military Technology's "Information Weapon"

Do “loose lips” still “sink ships?” That was a famous line on many a poster, back during World War II, urging people not to discuss things that could compromise security of U.S. or Allied military operations. In war, information is a weapon – as you’ll see below.


World War II-era Security Poster.
U.S. National Archives.

The idea behind the “Loose Lips” poster was to convince people not to discuss what they knew about military operations, equipment or other things related to the war. Obviously, you don’t want sailors and dock-workers discussing ship movements. You don’t want factory workers talking about the weapons they’re cranking out.

The very real problem, back then, during World War II, was that German and Japanese intelligence agents were out and about, looking for every scrap of knowledge. A good analyst can take a bit from here, a bit from there, and put together a good idea of the overall picture. So you don’t want to make the other guy’s job easy.

Keeping Things Quiet

In a famous example of tight security at work, a U.S. Navy anti-submarine group captured a German submarine, called U-505, on June 4, 1944. It was the first time a Navy vessel had captured an enemy vessel, at sea, since the nineteenth century. Along with the German submarine, the U.S. captured German encryption machines and code books, all of great use to intelligence gathering.

The capture took place in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of West Africa. The American force comprised the small aircraft carrier Guadalcanal (CVE-60) and five other ships. U.S. aircraft and destroyers depth-charged the German submarine until it surfaced. Then, after an exchange of gunfire, American sailors boarded the submarine and captured it intact, before German sailors could scuttle the boat.

Under the circumstances, thousands of people were aware of the action — certainly, every sailor in the battle group, who witnessed what had just occurred. Yet for all the German High Command knew, back in Berlin, U-505 was simply another submarine lost at sea.

One immediate problem was, how could the American side keep this secret? Critically, if the Germans learned that U-505 was captured, they’d surely change the code books.

The on-scene commander, Navy Captain Dan Gallery, knew how important it was to keep the news under wraps. He personally visited each ship in the squadron, met with sailors, and made announcement over the loudspeakers. Gallery told everyone that the German High Command likely didn’t know that their submarine was captured. He asked everyone not to discuss the event with anyone, until the war was over.

What happened? Well, everyone did the right thing, and no one breathed a word. The secret remained tight. The German side didn’t find out that U-505 was captured until after the war ended. The submarine, U-505, still exists, too. It’s on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Do We Still Keep Secrets?

These days, it’s not hard to get the impression that the U.S. military doesn’t keep many secrets. For example, mainstream media are often flooded with military-related reports from “embedded” reporters, if not the famous “leaks” from insiders up and down the information food chain. Indeed, wire service stories often delve into the most intimate details of military operations. (On occasion, I cringe at the level of detail!)

Elsewhere in the media, entire spectra — such as several different History Channel sites, for instance — devote time to shows about current U.S. military personnel, systems, training, capabilities and more. In recent months, I recall a couple of revealing television shows about the Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), and the F-22 and F-35 aircraft. At some points, during the shows, I was thinking, Why are they saying this on television?

Then there are legally gray areas. Consider the situation of former service members who write “unauthorized” books about classified missions and operations — No Easy Day, by Navy SEAL Mark Owens comes to mind. Plus, there are illegal releases of classified information, such as what happened with Army Private First Class Bradley Manning and his Wikileaks data dump.

From the outside looking in, there’s much to see in military operations. It’s not just your government at work. Indeed, a lot of the military stuff is pretty cool, if not salacious. Really, would you rather watch a television show about jets roaring off the deck of an aircraft carrier, or a show about some guy doing his job pursuant to the Agricultural Adjustment Act?

Often, with unauthorized military releases, the details are dicey. Consider that policy differences sometimes become viciously political, such as the Iran-Contra matter of the 1980s. More recently, last year we had a damaging release of information concerning the origins of the “Stuxnet” computer virus, which effectively hampered Iranian nuclear developments for several years. Not anymore. Not after that news item got out.

Then again, many things bear a security classification that isn’t truly necessary, because the senior brass, if not the political masters, just don’t want to deal with the scrutiny.

How Much is Too Much?

Maintaining security is a balance. In a free society, the public has a right to know quite a bit about how its government spends funds and conducts business. But of course, the U.S. and its armed forces have enemies in the world. There really are people who want to hurt us, and there’s a legitimate need for security.

Look at it this way. You wouldn’t want to be the guy — or you wouldn’t want your son or daughter to be the one — to get zapped because some bad guy picked up some useful piece of information from watching television, or surfing the Internet.

Public Affairs

In its own way, the military has refined information management — aka “Public Affairs” (PA) — to a high art. Indeed, there’s an entire career path in PA for ambitious enlisted personnel, officers and civilian employees

Let’s say that the Air Force or Navy closes a section of airspace or offshore sea-space. And then, perhaps there’s a missile trail across the sky, with a few sonic booms. Later on, the PA officer of some command or another releases a terse announcement of a particular test. How terse? Something like, “Last week, we successfully tested the XYZ System. We met all test criteria. Thank you. Please submit any further questions in writing.”

Or what about, say, Navy submarines. You could stand on the shoreline in San Diego, for example, and watch long, black shapes move out to sea and eventually return. But often as not, these vessels lack even a hull number painted on the side. You don’t know what ship it is, or where it’s going, let alone the mission. You don’t need to know. And when it’s truly operational, the Navy isn’t about to tell you.

Information Warfare, With B-2 Bombers

There’s “information warfare,” too. It goes beyond what the PA officer puts out, and it far surpasses the olden days of airplanes dropping leaflets on cities in enemy territory. In fact, the U.S. has airplanes outfitted as flying television and radio stations, designed for missions that feed a stream of information into the heads of people we want to influence. Big Brother is broadcasting.

On occasion, an operational activity becomes the actual “information” message we want to send.

Consider last week’s remarkable news release, from the Pentagon, that U.S. B-2 bombers flew from their home base, in Missouri, to South Korea. There, the B-2s made daylight passes over populated areas, and then headed to a bombing range where they laid down ordnance.


Front page news: U.S. B-2 bomber overflies South Korea.

What was the message? Well, first, it helps to know that the U.S. almost never releases operational details of B-2 missions. Sure, there’s the occasional flyover at an air-show or such. But actual missions into world hot spots? No way, and never a peep while the aircraft are downrange.

More specifically, the U.S. government has never before announced that B-2 bombers have flown over the Korean peninsula. Thus, making a public announcement about B-2 flights to South Korea is giant leap, in terms of sending signals to the recently restive and belligerent North Koreans. That is, the U.S. military is saying that it can hit the North Koreans with effective weapons that come from far, far away.

Meanwhile, sending B-2s is a strong demonstration of political support and military backing to U.S. ally South Korea. That, and it’s a gesture of support to other U.S. allies in the region (Japan, Philippines, etc.), not to mention the deterrent effect on potential adversaries (guess who).

When you think about it, the B-2 flyover, above South Korea, is an elegant message. There’s particular significance, here, to sending such advanced technology into the Korean region, where a strong theme of the national story-lines of both South and North Korea focuses on U.S. bombers.

The back-story takes us to World War II, when Korea was occupied by Japan. Then, the Koreans witnessed Japan get bombed to smithereens by U.S. B-29s. A few years later, during the Korean War, those same B-29s pulverized much of North Korea. Today, the North Korean leadership remains extremely concerned — paranoid, really — about U.S. air power, which leads them to dig much of their military capability into tunnels.

Another angle to the B-2 message is that this is the aircraft that bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, in 1999, during the civil war in former Yugoslavia. There’s a strong belief, amongst many in the intelligence world, that the Chinese had signals-intelligence equipment on the roof of their Belgrade embassy, and were feeding information to Serbian forces. Thus the embassy bombing — in which the weapons, dropped by a B-2, hit precisely at the communications center, and the military attaché office — was no accident of gravity.

It’s fair to say that the B-2 has an aura of technical capability, such that it can go after specific floors of specific buildings. Evidently, that’s a message that the U.S. and South Koreans would like to transmit to the North Koreans.

Loose Lips Versus a Big Mouth

At root, the U.S. — in consultation with the South Koreans — decided to make an open gesture of the B-2 missions, while the airplanes were en-route! The idea is to stand up, and counter the vitriol, raw sensationalism and staged photo ops that the North Koreans have been feeding into the global news cycle.

It’s more than likely that North Korean leaders are rattling sabers in order to maintain domestic control over the populace, and to stroke the egos of North Korea’s military leadership hierarchy. Discipline, discipline and more discipline, right?

But where does this lead? What next? Well, North Korea’s leaders have literally brought their military forces to the brink of general war, even though the country is probably not ready for it. The challenge now is to find a way to de-escalate the situation.

Indeed, the North Korean situation is dangerous in ways that even the best technology can’t fix.

That’s all for now. Until next time.

Best wishes…

Byron W. King