Armed with semi-automatic weapons and a suitcase chock full of American dollars, a team of covert agents set out in the dead of night to meet a foreign national turncoat in the middle of a dark forest. The agents meticulously search along the country’s border until they find a man waiting in the shadows to exchange technology for money.
In this case, the agents procure an advanced aeronautical component.
The only language they have in common is that of business. The parties complete the exchange, give each other a nod, and swiftly disappear back into the night.
What sounds like a juicy scene from a piece of Tom Clancy fiction is actually one of the many ways the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) at Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, or one of its predecessors, have procured intelligence on foreign air and space forces for 100 years.
While the acquisition process may be face-to-face or occur in cyberspace, obtaining data or equipment is integral to assessing a potential foe’s true capabilities and divining their future intentions. The mission’s goal is to assure that United States forces avoid technological surprise and can counter existing and evolving foreign air and space threats.
After the deal
Depending on the classification of the materials obtained—air, space or cyberspace—a team of the United States’ most qualified, knowledgeable and tech savvy sleuths grab their scalpels and start dissecting. Their analysis and reverse engineering is performed in some of the most heavily fortified, controlled, and monitored facilities in the military.
Take the aforementioned procurement; if the exchange provides a piece of hardware, such as an aircraft part, NASIC hands off the “FM” (foreign materiel) to their 87-member Foreign Materiel Exploitation Squadron. This group of experts includes engineers and scientists, contractors and Airmen, from more than 10 areas of expertise.
“The screening process for those selected into the Air Force’s Foreign Materiel Exploitation Squadron is very rigorous—we make sure we select the perfect person for the job,” said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Klement, the squadron superintendent. “The majority of our specialties are one-deep positions, so we need self-starters who are experts in their Air Force specialty and can innovatively solve problems.”
This “perfect person for the job” philosophy is one of the trademarks of NASIC and what ensures they remain a paragon of the intelligence community. The long legacy of fastidious screening is also one of the chief reasons the U.S. government remains fully aware of adversary’s capabilities, weapons and tactics—fundamentally, technologically and strategically.
Crawl to sprint: Aircraft and allies
“The heritage of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center goes back almost 100 years, to McCook Field in Dayton (Ohio) under the Army’s Foreign Data Section,” explained Rob Young, the NASIC historian. “There was a need to better understand what foreign aircraft and their associated systems were capable of; whether it be armament, propulsion, or the airframe itself.”
That same mantra continues to resound today, but gained increasing significance in the years after World War I.
A year after its start in 1917, at the advent of the interwar years, the Foreign Data Section focused its efforts on the procurement of any foreign scientific and technical information related to aircraft. Its foresight, predicting the necessity of collecting intelligence on foreign capabilities in a war-by-air, proved spot on. Within three decades, the U.S. found itself in an all-out air campaign in two theaters during WWII, necessitating a production effort that amassed more than 276,000 aircraft by war’s end.
Since 1941, the U.S. military has partnered with its allies to gather as many enemy aircraft, weapons, radios, and other systems as they could and sent them to NASIC’s predecessor at the Technical Data Laboratory. The analysis performed by the lab was vital to keeping pace with and countering enemy technology, as the Axis powers were making radical advancements in warfare tactics and technology.
“The security of our families and our nation relied upon us to avoid technological surprise during WWII. Whether it was jet-powered aircraft, rocket-powered aircraft or advanced propeller-driven aircraft, we needed to know how to stop it and what we could learn from it,” said Young. “Allied partnerships, like that of the British, played an enormous role in assisting units like the Technical Data Laboratory with the acquisition of German systems as they captured them. The 1943 procurement of the Junkers is a textbook example of the procurement partnership and importance of the laboratory.”
Commonly referred to as the “Backbone of the Luftwaffe” and the finest German bomber of the war, the Junkers Ju 88 Schnellbomber, was the Axis equivalent to the British Mosquito and the United States’ B-25 Mitchell. It was remarkably versatile and had highly responsive performance. Because of those traits, it was one of the most modified aircraft of the war. Its variants fulfilled dive-bombing, high-altitude bombing, ground-attack and night-fighting missions. Without a doubt, Allied forces were looking to get their hands on one.
1943: Wish Granted
A defecting Romanian pilot flew his Ju 88 to Cyprus and into the hands of the British Royal Air Force who then turned the aircraft over to the U.S. Army Air Forces. They gave it a distinctive American paintjob, to keep it safe from friendly fire, as it made its way across the globe to Wright Field, Ohio.
Acquisitions, like the Junkers, provided invaluable information about the incisive German electronic defenses, ways to counter the agile Japanese Zero fighters, and how to effectively direct long-range attack plans to stifle Axis technological and industrial advancements.
The Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) leadership, and those in the highest levels of the military, took note of the incredibly valuable intelligence gathered by the exploitation division, before and after the war. Just half a decade later, the strictly operational nature of the organization was changed—they would now have direct influence on military strategy through technical analysis in the Far East region of the world.
Their expertise was definitely needed, when a new Russian tormentor appeared in the skies over Korea.
Known as the “jet that shocked the West,” the appearance of the MIG-15 in the Korean battlespace sent shockwaves through the U.S. chain of command. Its sheer speed, firepower, and ability to climb, was unrivaled. It scared the hell out of the B-29 Superfortress crews, who found themselves at the mercy of the Soviet, Chinese, and Korean MIG pilots.
The U.S. was in yet another fight for air superiority.
In April 1953, the U.S. Far East Command made an offer of $100,000 for the first MiG-15 jet fighter delivered intact; however, no enemy pilot took the deal, and when the Korean truce went into effect July 27, 1953, the U.S. had still not acquired a MiG-15 for flight-testing.
“The MIG-15 was the No. 1 threat aircraft from 1950 to 1953; it was the worst thing we were facing,” explained Young. “Early on in the war, we were able to send in teams behind enemy lines and pick up pieces and chunks; however, we were unable to get our hand on a fully operational model—that was until No Kum-Sok.”
Just two months after the armistice, and with the offer still on the table, NASIC received one of its greatest and most heavily publicized procurements – a MIG-15, delivered by Lt. No Kum-Sok a defecting North Korean pilot.
Lt. No was a fighter company commander in the Second Regiment of the North Korean People’s Air Force. He said in his biography he thought about defection a number of times before, yet couldn’t do it until his unit moved south to Sunan Airfield outside of Pyongyang.
During his escape, Lt. No purposely allowed another pilot to take lead. This was the first flight from Sunan since the war ended, and in the eyes of the North Korean pilots, it was considered quite an honor. Now, flying second in the formation of three and near the end of the sortie, Lt. No broke to the south instead of landing at Sunan. It took him 13 minutes to reach Kimpo Air Base, South Korea.
“With no F-86 Sabre or air defenses yet noticing him, No Kum Sok chose to make a straight approach,” noted Young. “He made a downwind landing with F-86 aircraft in the pattern. As a matter of fact, he landed in the opposite direction of an F-86 that was landing on the same runway, and scared the pilot nearly to death. He parked alongside an F-86 sitting alert on the ramp, jumped out of his aircraft, and began shaking hands.”
On 21 September 1953 a North Korean pilot defected, flying a MIG-15 jet fighter interceptor to Seoul , South Korea. In the process the pilot collected a $100000 reward which had been offered by the United States Government. The United States Air Force quickly set about conducting flight tests to determine the capabilities, and limitations, of the Russian designed aircraft.
With the prize now in their hands, ATIC Airmen quickly got to work disassembling the craft so it could be put on a C-124 Globemaster and shuttled to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, to be reassembled and test flown. Among those eagerly awaiting its delivery was the Hollywoodesque Maj. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1947. He was now to be the main test pilot.
“The U.S. pilots did 11 test flights, pushing the MiG probably harder than the Russians had ever tested it,” noted Young. “Test engineers had to modify some of the instrumentation, yet found the MiG very easy to work on. After the flight tests at Okinawa, the MiG was disassembled and flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where it was thoroughly examined.”
Much was learned about the Sabre’s adversary; desirable and undesirable features were tallied and analyzed and assessments passed up the chain of command. However, the data collected also confirmed that ATIC’s efforts to gather intelligence, prior to the defection, had been on the right track.
“The most important lesson learned from the exploitation of the No Kum-Sok Mig was that the technical assessment that U.S. intelligence analysts had concluded prior to the defection was 98 percent correct. That conclusion spoke volumes to the work that had been conducted,” explained Young. “The exploitation efforts of Project ZETA, as it was named, was a surefire validation of ATIC methodologies. Because of this one procurement, countless other intelligence product assessments and developments were progressed.”
Present day: Battlefield acquisition & crafty procurement
The Department of Defense’s foreign materiel acquisition and exploitation programs continue to procure plans that may be implemented by a potential adversary and materiel assets that may, one day, fly in combat. It means getting hold of any aircraft, any surface-to-air missiles, and finding out how to evade them; it means getting their hand on every type of radar developed so that stealth technology stays undetected.
To this day, NASIC still toils behind layer after layer of security; reverse engineering acquisitions from the battlefield and from clandestine exchanges. Although enemy tactics can change quickly as the weather, the Airmen’s ability to adapt to these shifts is unquestioned — they understand what’s at stake.
When put into perspective, workers in foreign materiel exploitation are like modern-day Alan Turings, the pioneering English computer scientist who played a pivotal role in deciphering Nazi messages encoded with the Enigma machine during WWII. Their brilliance is focused on cracking codes, anticipating threats, and winning wars.
“The information gained by the Airmen of the Foreign Materiel Exploitation Squadron is used each and every day to make operations safer and more effective for all military members,” said Young. “Their efforts of today are used to prepare the nation to combat future air, space, and cyberspace weapons and to effectively develop the next generation of Air Force systems.”
It’s modern-day Airmen, like Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Parker, a metals technologist with the FME squadron, to whom Young refers. Without diagrams, schematics or operations manuals, Parker takes materiel he has never laid eyes on and facilitates adapters to make them interoperable and understandable. Though Parker cannot speak about any technically specific aspects of his job, when asked, he said how grateful he is to work with such an elite set of minds; all working together for a greater cause.
“There is no greater feeling than to hear that the work I do makes an impact on such a large scale,” said Parker. “The FME squadron has changed the way pilots fight, as well as giving intel analysts and policy makers the information needed to ensure our national security isn’t compromised.
“The amount of talent within the FME team is astonishing; and the way that each person relies equally upon the next is truly remarkable. It’s sincerely an honor to be a part such an invaluable mission and with an organization that has such a rich and unique history.”
No matter what is happening around the world, NASIC will be working around the clock, ensuring that the U.S., its allies, and their warfighters in the air and on the ground, have every foreseeable advantage over a foe. They continue to uncover the enemy’s secrets, thwart technological surprises and counter existing and evolving foreign air and space threats.
And, for those who are wondering, what the heck the U.S. is currently after, think of it like this: much like the FBI’s Most Wanted list, NASIC too has a list of what they deem the most highly sought after information or technology. However, ask them what might be on that list, and all you will get is a smile and a few snickers.