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Archive for January, 2004

DRONE ARMY? NOT

Friday, January 30th, 2004

Note to wide-eyed futurists: The Matrix and Terminator 3 are not — repeat not — documentaries. There are no all-robot armies in the works. Please go back to your desks.

MORE MONEY FOR LAME BIOSENSORS

Friday, January 30th, 2004

The Bush administration wants another $119 million for its BioWatch program, which puts air filters in 31 major cities, to sniff for toxic terror attacks.
Too bad the system’s close to useless, experts say.
First off, BioWatch protects against the most unlikely of terror threats: a crop duster, releasing a gigantic toxic cloud over an urban area. Maybe James Bond’s bad guys would come up with such a scheme. But Osama & Co. haven’t shown anywhere near the technical sophistication to brew up and maintain that much poison. And even if they did, a cold wind or a hard rain neutralizes most biothreats.
Plus, why fly a biplane over Times Square when you can send anthrax through the mail, or release it in a skyscraper’s vents?
Even if a grandiose attack should come, BioWatch wouldn’t provide any warning. The BioWatch filters are checked every 24 hours. Then, samples have to be run over to a Centers for Disease Control-approved lab. And then it takes another 12 hours to run tests. So if a pathogen is released, BioWatch won’t know about it until a day-and-a-half later.
“You’re getting very little specific data. And it’s unclear what you could do with that information that’s useful in the middle of an emergency,” Peter LeJenue, a biodefense specialist with Potomac Institute for Policy Studies said.
What’s more, LeJeune added, hundreds of these filters would be needed, to completely track the air in a single city. And the current program isn’t anywhere near that extensive.
THERE’S MORE: Our friends at DARPA are looking for research proposals to neutralize toxic clouds before they can reach troops on the battlefield.
AND MORE: Speaking of hare-brained schemes, the Pentagon is asking for a 13 percent increase in its missile defense programs next year, to $10.2 billion.

ENERGY “COMMANDOS” TEST NUKE SEC’Y

Thursday, January 29th, 2004

Back in the day, security at the country’s nuclear labs were tested by Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. Not any more.
Today, the Energy Department has its own 40-person team, trained to “think like terrorists,” that conduct mock attacks on nuclear facilities. National Defense magazine claims that these guys are the “cream-of-the-crop of DOEs security guards.“
Glenn Podonsky, director of the DOE office of independent oversight performance assurance, crows, “Were as good as, if not better than, any military organization we have today.“
Maybe. But given the Energy Department’s lame record of defending its bases, a team of grandmothers with their hips recently replaced could probably make off with a pile of uranium.

U.S. PLANS PAK OFFENSIVE

Thursday, January 29th, 2004

“The Bush administration,” reports the Chicago Tribune, “is preparing a U.S. military offensive that would reach inside Pakistan with the goal of destroying Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.“

U.S. Central Command is assembling a team of military intelligence officers that would be posted in Pakistan ahead of the operation, according to sources familiar with details of the plan and internal military communications. The sources spoke on the condition they not be identified.
As now envisioned, the offensive would involve Special Operations forces, Army Rangers and Army ground troops, sources said. A Navy aircraft carrier would be deployed in the Arabian Sea.
Referred to in internal Pentagon messages as the “spring offensive,” the operation would be driven by certain undisclosed events in Pakistan and across the region, sources said. A source familiar with details of the plan said this is “not like a contingency plan for North Korea, something that sits on a shelf. This planning is like planning for Iraq. They want this plan to be executable, now.”

THERMOBARIC TERRORISTS?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2004

The thermobaric bomb is just about the most vicious weapon you can imagine — igniting the air, sucking the oxygen out of an enclosed area, and creating a massive pressure wave crushing anything unfortunate enough to have lived through the conflagration.
So pray — pray hard — that this Defense News story is all wrong:

Thermobaric bombs, which the U.S. military is striving to perfect, may also be emerging as a weapon of choice for terrorists, according to a bomb expert at Battelle, a research institute…
There have been no attacks with thermobaric bombs in the United States, but their use is suspected in many terrorist bombings in Russia and other countries and proven in a few cases, said Tom Burky, Battelles top explosives expert.
Thermobarics use an explosion to ignite fuel, often metallic fuel such as aluminum. The burning fuel creates a slower and more sustained shock wave than a conventional explosion, which makes it better at breaking down walls and destroying people and equipment, Burky said.
Thermobaric explosives have been used… for decades by non-NATO militaries. In the 1960s, the former Soviet Union developed a variety of thermobaric weapons, including shoulder-fired weapons and artillery shells.
The U.S. military didnt get interested in them until the 1990s. The U.S. Air Force developed a big thermobaric bomb to drop into caves in Afghanistan, and the Army is working on a thermobaric 25mm round
Much of the information about thermobaric weapons has been classified. Thats a problem for homeland security first responders such as police and firefighters, Burky said. They are not being provided with important information about thermobaric weapons, such as safe standoff distances, how the much more powerful blast of a thermobaric weapon would be deflected and channeled by buildings and how to render thermobaric weapons safe, he said.

FLOWER POWER FOR MINE DETECTION

Wednesday, January 28th, 2004

“A Danish biotech company has developed a genetically modified flower that could help detect land mines,” Reuters reports.

The genetically modified weed has been coded to change color when its roots come in contact with nitrogen-dioxide (NO2) evaporating from explosives buried in soil. Within three to six weeks from being sowed over land mine infested areas the small plant, a Thale Cress, will turn a warning red whenever close to a land mine.

Aresa Biodetection, the Danish firm developing the plant, says field tests could begin as early as this year.
(via /.)

GUARDS CHEATED NUKE SECURITY DRILLS

Tuesday, January 27th, 2004

Security guards at the country’s leading nuclear storehouse have been cheating during antiterrorism drills — perhaps for as long as 20 years, according to a report released Monday by the Energy Department’s inspector general.
And now, watchdogs in Congress and beyond are questioning whether the tons of enriched uranium at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, are really safe at all.
“First off, heads should roll,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), who chairs the House Committee on Government Reform’s National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Subcommittee. “I can assure you, my committee will be following up in a very direct way.“
Y-12 is America’s main facility for processing enriched uranium. It stores nearly all of the country’s reserve of about 5,000 “secondaries,” the thermonuclear hearts of hydrogen bombs.
When a team of Y-12 rent-a-cops racked up a perfect score during an antiterror drill June 26, officials there were shocked. How could the guards have performed so well, they wondered, when a computer model had predicted that the defenders would lose at least half of their confrontations?
The answer was simple: The guards cheated. They had seen the computer models of the strikes the day before they were launched, rendering the test “tainted and unreliable,” according to the report. And this wasn’t the first time it had happened.
“From the mid-1980s to the present,” contract security guards had been given the plans to the attacks beforehand, noted Inspector General Gregory Friedman. The defenders knew ahead of time “the specific building and wall to be attacked by the test adversary,” and they knew “whether or not a diversionary tactic would be employed…“
If that wasn’t a big enough advantage, “management would identify the best prepared protective force personnel and then substitute them for lesser prepared personnel,” according to the report. “Based on specific attack information, trucks or other obstacles would be staged at advantageous points to be used as barricades and concealment.“
The guards got slaughtered the few times they didn’t cheat, said Ronald Timm, who spent six years as an independent security analyst at Y-12.
During one test, simulated terrorists took a mock, 44-pound uranium package, and “got outside of the fences in 38 seconds,” he said. “People were shocked out of their minds.“
My Wired News article has details.
THERE’S MORE: When are the Democratic presidential candidates going to go after the Bush administration on nuclear security? That’s what a former senior Energy Department official wants to know. Recall all the [Republicans] on Capitol Hill beating up Clinton and [then-Energy Secretary] Hazel [O’Leary] for their failures,” the official e-mails Defense Tech. “What has changed?“
AND MORE: Rep. Shays notes that nuclear security testing has gotten much harder since 9/11. “The basic assumption used to be, terrorists had to get in and get out [of a place like Y-12]. And getting out was so difficult,” he tells Defense Tech. “That’s changed since September the 11th. Now, we’ve got to assume that all they want to do is get in. And that’s much more difficult to stop.“
AND MORE: At the Pantex nuclear facility, “workers dismantling an aging nuclear weapon secured broken pieces of high explosive by taping them together,” according to the AP.
“Homer Simpson has apparently relinquished his post at Springfield nuclear plant,” declares the Register.
AND MORE: “Nice story, but ‘heads should roll’ — don’t make me laugh,” says one insider. “If Shays wants to get at the problem, he ought to go down the hall and talk to the labs’ protectors over on the Senate side.“
AND MORE: What’s left of Libya’s stillborn nuclear program has just been shipped to Y-12. Oy.

SPACESHIP DESIGNS ONLINE

Monday, January 26th, 2004

boeing_interplanetary_CEV.JPGThe big aerospace companies are starting to manuever for Bush’s Moon-and-Mars lucre. Here’s a Boeing sketch for the “interplanetary Crew Exploration Vehicle” — “assembled at the Lunar Space Station” and “capable of traveling to Mars or beyond.“
More graphics are here.
(via NASAWatch)

ZEPPELINS RETURN

Monday, January 26th, 2004

ascender.jpgBlimps are back — at least a little.
Later this month, the Air Force is due to test out in Texas a V-shaped, 175 foot-long, helium filled airship. The goal, according to Aviation Week: to put together a “near-space maneuvering vehicle,” operating more than 100,000 feet up, that can relay messages and spy on enemies.
It’s one for the first times since the 60’s that Americans has aggressive tried to exploited that region of the skies, Col. Kent Traylor, vice commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Warfare Center, tells the magazine.
But it’s not the only lighter-than-air craft being designed by the U.S. military. By the end of the year, the Missile Defense Agency is supposed to pick a contractor for its High Altitude Airship — a solar-powered zeppelin that’ll track missiles from 65,000 feet.
THERE’S MORE: Mirrored, laser-firing blimp, anyone? The Pentagon “might combine two of its missile defense efforts the Aerospace Relay Mirror System and the High Altitude Airship to increase the range of military laser systems,” according to a Jane’s story from over the summer (via Global Security Newswire).

The Missile Defense Agency is scheduled to begin flight tests of the airship in 2006, and officials want to conduct experiments that combine both systems around that time. The airship is primarily being developed to track missiles, but it could be teamed with the mirror relay system to allow ground-based lasers to track targets that are out of direct view, according to Janes. The mirror system would be attached to the airship with cables and would sit 50 meters below the aircraft.

AND MORE: Popular Science has details on the High Altitude Airship. Did we mention it’s 25 times the size of the Goodyear blimp?

WHAT ABOUT DICK? CIA GETS SOLE BLAME FOR WMD LAPSE

Monday, January 26th, 2004

It’s the CIA’s fault. That’s the long-and-short of former chief weapons inspector David Kay’s interview in the New York Times today. He says the intelligence agency failed to pick up signs of Iraq’s internal chaos, which blocked progress towards nuclear, biological, and chemical arms.
Now, it’s true that American intelligence had been saying for years that Iraq had WMD stockpiles. But isn’t it just a bit overly-simple to blame the CIA?
After all, there have been many, many reports that our pal Dick Cheney and his cronies pressured CIA spooks into pumping up the WMD threat. Shouldn’t they get skewered, too?
THERE’S MORE: Reader MS points out that in his interview with the Times, Kay makes sure to say, “I never got any pressure to find a certain outcome.” Sure he didn’t.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan has more on Kay’s “Art of Camouflage.”