The Great Grain Robbery: Lessons Learned from Earth Imaging's Early History

by | May 18, 2011

By Dr. Gary E. Weir, historian, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (, Bethesda, Md.

Have you ever heard of the Great Grain Robbery of 1972? What sounds like a train hijacking actually opened the intelligence community's eyes to the possibilities of a new form of sensory technology that has since become important for defense against military, terrorist, environmental and economic threats. History in this case demonstrates that accomplishments frequently begin with fortuitous technical and personal encounters. As a result, often you can find the roots of accomplishment in unexpected places, like a field of wheat.

The Spoils of War

All through the Cold War, the challenges of the Russian climate and questionable Soviet agricultural methods made crop failure a regular occurrence in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It also made the constant presence of Soviet agricultural trade representatives in foreign commodity markets part of business as usual. The Soviet leadership always had a difficult time providing adequate supplies of basic food necessities.

Faced with nothing less than a catastrophic grain failure in the summer of 1972, the challenge became critical, and the Soviets acted swiftly to stave off widespread hunger. During a three-month period that summer, the Soviet Union purchased  $19 million metric tons of grain from the United States, amounting to 25 percent of the total wheat crop. Acting quickly and early, their trade representatives managed to get their purchases through before the market had a chance to raise prices in reaction to considerable increase in demand.

They also benefitted from a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wheat export subsidy program and a recently renegotiated credit agreement. When the purchases became generally known and the domestic wheat supply in the United States fell, the Soviet action triggered a considerable disruption in the U.S. and global grain markets”an event that became known as the Great Grain Robbery.

All of this had occurred in a matter of a few weeks, and the U.S. national leadership had no idea the Soviets faced a domestic agricultural emergency. Neither did they know about the extensive and rapid grain purchases. How could this have happened? What steps or changes might prevent its reoccurrence? The intelligence used to estimate the success of annual Soviet agricultural programs employed considerable resources but little direct contact with Soviet farmers or the crop, given the location. Although electro-optical satellites could photograph grain-growing areas, the imagery couldn't clearly reveal in black and white any damage wrought by drought, insects or disease. The general success or failure of a growing season often remained in doubt.

Technology Solutions
The Great Grain Robbery led the intelligence community to revisit research done earlier in the Cold War on nonphotographic sensors. Radar imaging had emerged from that research as well as a desire for infrared sensors that could detect heat radiation emitted by people and hardware. These emissions didn't even appear on infrared film because of the longer wavelengths.

Shorter infrared wavelengths had occupied the camouflage experts during World War II because the infrared portion of the light spectrum reflects from crops, revealing various stages or conditions of plants by color. The resulting false-color image provided a potential way to discern the difference between a healthy field of wheat and one ravaged by insects or lack of water. Earlier, this might have provided a way around camouflage.

In the 1960s civilian scientists hoped for insight from the technology into the proper management of Earth's resources. NASA's decision in 1964 to embark on a largely civilian Earth resources satellite in consultation with USDA and the Department of the Interior had sparked some interest in the Department of Defense (DoD) and Hughes Corp. to help develop a practical, spaceworthy multispectral scanner. The system had civilian applications and defense potential in a world still dominated by traditional overhead imagery and tradecraft.

Oddly enough, NASA launched the first in its series of Earth resources satellites, Landsat 1, at the same time the intelligence community reacted to the Great Grain Robbery of 1972 by re-evaluating promising earlier sensor research. For the first time there was a satellite in orbit with practical multispectral technology that intelligence analysts could use to address issues of consequence.

Emphasis quickly turned to the scanner when the satellite's vidicon return-beam cameras ceased operating only a few days into the mission. Scientists and engineers managed to fine-tune the scanner so it achieved greater accuracy than anticipated. Later Landsat flights”the series went through seven launches”carried improved video, sensitivity to additional spectral bands and an improved scanner called Thematic Mapper. Some of the earliest experimental intelligence work using spectral data employed Landsat as a source.

Landsat represented a constructive encounter between the civilian desire to monitor Earth's natural resources and the promising spectral surveillance research conducted by DoD as a hot war turned cold. The Great Grain Robbery illuminated for analysts the intelligence possibilities coincidentally present in Landsat. This early effort to understand the potential of Landsat data for defense purposes has since evolved at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency into significant multispectral and hyperspectral accomplishments.

Editor's Note: Thanks to the NGA Pathfinder staff for their assistance with this column.


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