It's Easier to Track One Man Through His Cellphone Than a 110,000-Ton Aircraft Carrier

(AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The USS Abraham Lincoln, now deployed to the Middle East, is meant to be symbolically visible to the press but not to the Iranians. The Lincoln, like the rest of the surface fleet operating under the doctrine of “Distributed Lethality” has a fair chance of remaining unseen by enforcing very strict emission controls and relying on passive detectors and networked remote sensors to provide situational awareness.


Every warship is a potential sensor or shooter in the shared effort, but the ability of enemies to detect, track and target U.S. naval forces is greatly complicated.

In fact, the new strategy puts considerable emphasis on concealment and deception as a way of both deterring and defeating aggressors. When naval campaigns are organized around a handful of aircraft carriers, it doesn’t take a lot of thought for enemies to figure out what their top-priority target should be. But when a campaign is waged by diverse vessels scattered over many hundreds of miles of water, the enemy is challenged in determining where to focus its response.

Networked sensors make it possible for some other asset, not necessarily the ships themselves, to be the “eyes of the fleet” until the time comes to uncloak. To find American units the enemy will have to light up their radars or send out scouts to look for them. This exposes them to discovery since active sensors can be seen much further than the objects they wish to illuminate. Proxies for both sides — aircraft, drones, submarines, small watercraft, people — will try to discover the disposition of the foe while the main units remain hidden. But America, with its network, can do this more easily than its rivals.

Concealment is golden. As James Durso of The Hill notes, “the real action will take place off-stage in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen… and off-stage is where both sides want to fight, away from the glare of a conflict in the Gulf waters.” It’s not just military units that are trying to alter their signatures. Politicians are also in the stealth business. So long as they ensure nothing that resembles Hollywood war occurs, the public won’t react to it.


In this battle for concealment, the value of the carrier is that it can protect American scouts while holding the foes at risk. The Abraham Lincoln’s air assets can pick off scouts or degrade them if necessary. Yet Iran has no choice but to keep sending scouts out and has already spent a lot of money developing drones and supplying them to their proxies.

Iran began developing drones in the early 1980s during its war against Iraq. Over the years, and in spite of crippling international sanctions, Iran has developed a colorful ecosystem of military unmanned air vehicles. Iran uses its drones to fly over U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, and for a theoretical future war against Israel. Iran supplies drones to Hezbollah, the Lebanese paramilitary organization, which has been known to fly its Iranian UAVs into Israeli airspace. Iran also produces non-weaponized surveillance drones for the government of Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad. Iranian drones have been spotted flying over Syrian battle zones since the early days of the Syrian civil war.

The Saudis (and presumably others) have spent a lot of money shooting scouts down. “Saudi officials estimate they’ve shot down more than 140 drones.” Some Iranian models can range far out to sea, “dubbed UAV-X by United Nations investigators, that can travel more than 900 miles at a speed of 150 miles-per-hour. That’s worrisome because it greatly expands the reach of the rebel groups … to affect shipping lanes in the Red Sea.”


The struggle to see first and shoot first continues because Iranian UAVs can inflict considerable damage. “In July 2018, they claimed responsibility for an attack against an oil refinery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and against the international airport in the United Arab Emirates. In January, they used a bomb-laden drone to attack a number of Yemeni military officials, killing military intelligence head Maj. Gen. Mohammad Saleh Tamah.”

ISIS losing the battle to stay hidden in the electromagnetic spectrum illustrates what happens once information dominance is lost. In their final days, “ISIS leaders expressed their concerns that the American-led coalition … conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is pinpointing select targets by monitoring smartphones and tablet computers… ‘the USA can see what you are doing,’ spokesman Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi wrote in a text exchange via Skype.”

The belief “that phones running Android — an operating system developed by Google, one of the most voracious amassers of data in the world — have been deemed beyond the reach of military surveillance and treated as a safe alternative to Apple may strike American readers as ironic.” More than ironic, ISIS’ surmise is probably wrong. Recently the New York Times described how not just criminals but everyone is being tracked by Google. “Google is a dragnet for the police,” wrote the NYT. “The tech giant records people’s locations worldwide. Now, investigators are using it to find suspects and witnesses near crimes”.


The new orders, sometimes called “geofence” warrants, specify an area and a time period, and Google gathers information from Sensorvault about the devices that were there. It labels them with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information …

It turns out that people have been sending out tracking beacons for years. Google has “been tracking the location of almost every Android device owner for over a decade,” according to ZDNet. By contrast, a naval vessel operating under complete emissions control has a better chance of remaining undetected in the vastness of the sea than a man in a Western city so long as it remains out of visual range of the enemy. One of the 21st century’s paradoxes is that it is easier to track one man through his cellphone than locate a 110,000-ton aircraft carrier that is electronically silent.

Most people have already lost the fight for “information dominance” to their cellphones. Quick! Alert everyone to this new danger by Skype.

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