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Archive for January, 2005


Monday, January 31st, 2005

For years, Sen. John McCain has been ripping the Pentagon over its sweetheart deals with Boeing. Now, the Senator is going after the biggest deal of all — the $127 billion Future Combat Systems initiative.
NLOS_cannon.jpgFuture Combat Systems, or FCS, is the most complex, most expensive upgrade the American military as ever tried. It calls for the rebooting of almost every component of Army hardware, from armored vehicles to software-based radios to flying drones to the uniforms G.I.s wear. And Boeing — which got into hot water over its, um, peculiar arrangement with the Air Force for leasing tankers — is one of two companies overseeing the sprawling effort.
Since FCS began in the late 90’s, the project’s technologies has been rejiggered, its deadlines have been shifted, and its goals have been reshaped.
Next month, “Mr. McCain, a senior member of the Senate armed services committee, intends to look at the vast FCS program as part of a series of hearings on Pentagon procurement practices,” the Financial Times reports. “Mr. McCain was concerned about the structure of the deal, in which the army has essentially outsourced management of the contract to Boeing, in addition to cost overruns… He is also expected to ask the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the oversight arm of Congress, to look into FCS.“
The GAO tore into the program and its managers this past April for lunging ahead with FCS, even when they knew its deadlines and technologies weren’t at all realistic. What’ll happen next, under McCain’s direction, is anyone’s guess. But I’m betting that there are a whole heap of problems just waiting to be uncovered here.
THERE’S MORE: “I first requested documents regarding the [tanker lease] proposal in June 2003. Regrettably, since then the DoDs production of documents has been riddled by disruption, obfuscation and delay,” McCain wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary on Saturday. “Some documents that were produced were doctored; others that should have been produced, were improperly withheld. To date, after months of assurances, partial production on only about 7 out of 36 request categories have been produced.“
AND MORE: FCS is “a huge program, and obviously we need to have a hearing on it. I have no preconceived notions about it,” McCain told Inside the Army today after a Senate policy luncheon. “I’m not against it. I’m not for it. I’m not trying to do anything other than exercise our legitimate oversight of the program.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) told Inside the Army he supported the idea of a hearing on FCS — if only to help senators help the Army balance its budget, a task complicated by mounting bills from the war in Iraq and other operations. Hearings could help lawmakers evaluate whether certain technologies could be accelerated even more to help soldiers fight the war in Iraq, Sessions said.
The new FCS right now, we need more [unmanned aerial vehicles] which are part of the Future Combat System, but we need them now in Iraq. So you might take some of the money from some of the things that are not critical to today and say we’re going to accelerate this part of the Future Combat System, which might sort of be contradictory to the plan we had prior to 9–11 FCS development, Sessions said. But, he added, some of the other things may slip on the timetable.


Monday, January 31st, 2005

As most regular readers know, I’ve been extremely skeptical about American involvement in Iraq. The White House’s justification for going to war always seemed shaky to me; its execution, nearly as wobbly.
But the sight of so many Iraqis risking their lives to vote yesterday, that was beyond inspirational. And I have to give the President and his team credit here. They had the collective stones to stick with these elections — even when seizures of violence made the plan look like fantasy. And they had foresight to predict the electrifying power of the ballot in Iraq — no matter how confused, how rushed, or how scary the election may have been.
In Iraqis, the White House saw a group who couldn’t wait to grab control of their lives, after so many years without leverage at all. The President’s people were right. And, as a result, something beautiful happened on Sunday.
Here’s how one friend, who’s been helping the Iraqis set up these elections, described yesterday’s events:

Today was a day for voters and electoral workers, and both groups exceeded expectations. Throughout the day, we worked the phones to get updates from friends and associates across Iraq. The phrasing of one seemed to have been echoed by many: we heard explosions and gunfire, but we were together and were not afraid. A quintessential example of what happened here today is relayed in an anecdote from Quadisiyah, a district of Baghdad at the end of the peninsula. Voters lined up outside a polling station and then scattered when an insurgent appeared down the street with an RPG and fired. The grenade missed its target, and an hour later the voters regrouped, in greater numbers, to finish the job.
Nearly forty died across Iraq today in the violence that had been promised. Nine suicide bombers also visited polling stations. Insurgents chased down voters exiting polling stations and hit them with grenades. And there were mortars. They waited an hour or so until after the polling stations opened here before hitting in force. And then there was silence, and in that silence, a people beset by hardship went about the business of self-expression. The honor of the fallen was upheld by the undeterred.
A couple weeks ago, a bright young friend of mine asked me who is this Ben Franklin guy? I asked what made him wonder and he said, still staring at his internet screen, because he said that people who think there is a choice between security and liberty deserve neitherI think thats pretty cool, would there be any problem with my printing this out and hanging it on the wall? No problem at all, Mohammed, print away.


Saturday, January 29th, 2005

We’ve known for a while now that the “two computer disks that supposedly disappeared last summer, prompting a virtual shutdown of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in fact never existed.” But what’s interesting in this AP rpeort is that the Department of Energy has gone ahead and decided to slash the lab’s management anyway.

In a harshly worded review that described severe security weaknesses at the nuclear lab, the U.S. Energy Department concluded that bar codes were recorded for the disks but the disks themselves were never created. A separate FBI investigation supported that finding, according to the report.
“The weaknesses revealed by this incident are severe and must be corrected,” according to the report.
As punishment for the problems, the Energy Department slashed by two-thirds the management fee it paid to the University of California for running the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Out of a possible $8.7 million, UC will get only $2.9 million; it is the largest fee reduction ever imposed on a national laboratory.
“Although multiple investigations have confirmed that the ‘missing’ disks never existed, the major weakness in controlling classified material revealed by this incident are absolutely unacceptable and the University of California must be held accountable for them,” National Nuclear Security Agency Administrator Linton Brooks said in a statement.

This is a real change of business for an Energy Department that usually looks the other way when one of its nuclear centers screw up. The lab watchdogs at Project on Government Oversight may feel that any fee is too much for the University. But this seems to me to be a proper step.


Friday, January 28th, 2005

There were a couple of anti-IED technologies I didn’t get to mention in my recent Wired News piece. One of ‘em comes from Navy-funded engineers at Advanced Ceramics Research in Tuscon, Arizona. They’re outfitting their Silver Fox unmanned plane with a radio frequency emitter. The signal returns when the wave encounters a detonation wire. And that tips troops off to the fact that an handmade bomb might be nearby.
st_helens8.jpgDayton, Ohio’s Spectra Research is also getting some Navy money to spot the jury-rigged weapons. But the company has a whole different approach to doing it. By using a series of laser flashes over a wide array of the infrared, thermal, and visual wavelengths, the company’s technology can — hopefully — spot suspicious shapes as they appear on the road.
Similar sensors are often fooled by weather or light conditions. Spectra’s is different, promises company president Gordon Little. But by using so many different bands of light, Little thinks his project could lead to “greatly reduced false alarms.“
But there’s a big shortcoming in the technology, Little admits. If an IED is buried in the ground — and they often are — Spectra’s sensor would be pretty much useless. “Buried objects would not beparticularly accessible to us,” he sighs.


Thursday, January 27th, 2005

Chief Warrant Officer Gordon Cimoli served 10 months in Iraq flying a Black Hawk helicopter. And, as you can imagine, he has stack of stories that illustrate the incredible strain that these pilots undergo. Here are a couple of excerpts from his diaries…
Crew in Objective Rams, Iraq Day 4_jpg.jpg

We were descended for landing and we found that we couldn’t see anything at all. We could not see where the ground ended and the sky began. Fred slowed down and started a descent but we found that we were not really descending as we intended to. Instead we lingered at 100 to 120 feet at almost zero forward airspeed. We finally made our descent to the ground and at about 25 feet we had a dust cloud surrounding the aircraft. Remember, this is all under NVG’s [night vision goggles] with zero illumination from the moon. We basically landed with no visual reference to the ground below us. It was certainly scary but what we have come to expect
This type of flying goes against all we were taught throughout our flying career-when you can’t see the ground and/or the horizon, you are flying under IMC (instrument meteorological conditions), but instead, we fly just as we are VMC (visual meteorological conditions) even though we cannot see the ground or anything in front of us. It is definitely challenging and at the end of every flight, Fred and I look at each other and ask, why are we doing this?

Shawn came in to the tent at 12:30am and told me about a Chinook crew that just went inadvertent IMC (flew into the clouds on accident). They recovered here to Udairi with no problem. As it turned out, 2 more aircraft when into the clouds also. These were Alpha company birds. One aircraft came back and the other aircraft did not. No one has had radio contact with this aircraft since they entered the clouds. Hope they come back.
I was talking to Fred about it and it would be very easy to fly right into a cloud without realizing it at night. When we fly NVG flights, it is nearly impossible to see the ground and even more difficult to see what is coming up in front of you. I can foresee this happening to more crews if the weather were worse. The only thing we have going for us is that the weather is typically not cloudy like it is in Germany. However, today, we had so much rain that it is now evaporating and forming low clouds.
While I was writing a letter to Stef, the commander walked into the tent to wake up the 1SG Not a good sign Sam just came in and stood next to me. He did not look good. I could tell that the worst had happened and asked him, “Are they not coming back?” He said no. They found the aircraft not far from here. Sam walked back out with the Commander and the 1SG. More information to follow. About an hour later, [the Commander] officially told us the facts as they knew them at the time: 2 CH-47’s went IIMC, they recovered. 2 UH-60’s went IIMC and only one recovered. CPT Gibbons and 1SG Webb left in a Humvee and came upon the burning wreckage. There were no survivors.


Thursday, January 27th, 2005

It’s not clear, yet, why the Marines’ CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed near the border of Jordan and Iraq (although weather is a prime suspect). But this New York Times article describes just how dangerous flying one of the copters over Iraq can be.

[After three U.S. helicopter were shot down by insurgents in November, 2003], American commanders ordered pilots to fly evasively at all times. American helicopters routinely fly at tree-top level, bobbing and weaving on their way to their destination. Like the Super Stallion that went down Wednesday, Army and Marine helicopters often fly at night, when the threat of attack is diminished. Helicopter pilots say that they are still routinely shot at from the ground but that the tactics have largely prevented the insurgents from hitting them.
Because the helicopters fly so low, one of the principal dangers is electrical and telephone wires, which the choppers often leap over in flight.
The CH-53E Super Stallion involved in the crash is the largest and heaviest helicopter used by the American military.
“Look at its sheer size — it’s huge,” said Richard Aboulafia, a military industry analyst at the Teal Group, a northern Virginia aerospace and consulting firm. “It’s a monster, and with size comes the fact that it is not very maneuverable.“
Weather, too, presents special problems.
“Helicopters are fairly fragile pieces of equipment,” said Ivan Oelrich, director of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington nonprofit group. “It’s rough for them to operate in a dusty, desert environment where the dust can get into the machinery. And they are vulnerable to ground fire because they fly at slow speeds, close to the ground…“
Before Wednesday’s crash, the CH-53E Super Stallion had a strong safety record, something analysts said was due to the maturity of its design and the reliability of its equipment.
The helicopter first came into service in 1981, although it is based on a design that dates to the Vietnam War. Produced by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, the helicopter was bought almost exclusively by the Marine Corps. Production ended about five years ago.

A three-engine craft, the helicopter is designed to operate in bad weather, day and night. It can lift more, carry it farther and fly faster than other helicopters in the Pentagon’s fleet. Equipped with night vision ability, it is designed to operate in harsh terrain.
“This is a craft that can operate day or night, in all types of weather,” said John Milliman, a spokesman for the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, Md. “It is a very big, very rugged helicopter than can carry a very heavy load.“
Still, for all its bulk, the craft remains vulnerable. If forced to fly evasively in bad weather, a pilot could become disoriented.
Some American officials have expressed worry that the harsh conditions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the frequency with which the helicopters are deployed, could have rendered them vulnerable.
At an October 2003 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Joel R. Hefley, Republican of Colorado, the chairman, said the typical Super Stallion returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq was found to have 150 pounds of sand spread throughout its interior.
Sand is thought to be one of the worst enemies of the helicopter in Iraq, wearing down rotors and seeping into engines and electronics. It can blind pilots, especially on landing, when the helicopters kick up huge clouds of dust. It mixes with lubricants and turns them into sticky masses of gum.
“The conditions were harsh,” Mr. Hefley said. “The heat, the sand, the operational tempo together resulted in our troops taking a beating.”

THERE’S MORE: A Kiowa scout copter has just crashed in Baghdad, the AP is reporting.


Thursday, January 27th, 2005

I’ll be on the public radio show Future Tense today, talking about the Pentagon’s high tech ways to stop jury-rigged bombs. (Here’s a link that’ll take you straight to the interview.)
THERE’S MORE: I’ve also got a short article in today’s Times, about a new generation of music mixing software, for mobile phones.


Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

This is awful, just awful. Let’s hope these numbers are off.
A U.S. Marine helicopter transporting troops crashed Wednesday in the desert of western Iraq, killing 31 people, American military officials said. It was the deadliest crash of a U.S. military helicopter in Iraq.
970417-N-3149V-005_screen.jpgA Pentagon source said the helicopter was a CH-53 Sea Stallion, which is normally configured to carry 37 passengers, but can take up to 55. There was no immediate word on how many people were on board or what caused the crash.
The military officials did not specify the nationalities of those on board or say how many were soldiers.
It was the biggest loss of life in a helicopter crash in Iraq — and could be the deadliest single incident for American forces since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

THERE’S MORE: Back in August, a Sea Stallion crashed in Okinawa; thankfully, no one was killed. But that same month, two Marines died when their CH-53 copter went down over Iraq’s Al-Anbar province. In 2002, two more lost their lives when the newer, Super Stallion version of the aircraft broke down in Afghanistan.


Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

When U.S. Army Capt. Christopher Sullivan was killed last week by a handmade bomb, it was a tragedy for his family — and a tragically ordinary event for the American military. Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have been responsible for hundreds of American casualties in Iraq. And so far, there doesn’t appear to be any reliable way of stopping them.
HMMWV-IED-2a.gifThe Pentagon, scrambling for answers, is in the middle of a frantic search for high-tech methods to find and neutralize the jury-rigged weapons.
Microwave blasts, radio-frequency jammers and chemical sensors are among the methods being explored and deployed in this largely secret effort.
But, because IEDs are cobbled together from “whatever the people that plant them can find,” warned Cliff Anderson, a program manager at the Office of Naval Research, “there is no magic bullet” that will suddenly end the IED threat…
Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, believes, the most effective IED countermeasure might be a pulse of electromagnetic energy that can “fry the circuits of these bombs.“
Researchers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Dahlgren Laboratory in Virginia are working on such a solution, called NIRF, short for Neutralizing Improvised Explosive Devices with RF. The device, according to a source familiar with the project, “produces a very high-frequency field, in the microwave range, at very short range” to take out an IED’s electronics. The Pentagon hopes to deploy NIRF in Iraq later this year.
My article in today’s Wired News has details.
THERE’S MORE: The L.A. Times has a dynamite story today from Al-Ramadi, Iraq, on the dangers facing American convoys there.

As he always does before traveling the roadways of Iraq, Marine Staff Sgt. Johnathan Radel on Tuesday said a short prayer.
“Lord, please keep us safe today from IEDs and VBIEDS,” he said as he sat in his Humvee, using the initials for improvised explosive devices and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
Less than five minutes later, as the eight-vehicle convoy rolled through the streets of Ramadi in the predawn darkness, an IED exploded beneath one of the Humvees, sending an orange fireball into the sky and shredding the vehicle’s back tires.

AND MORE: How does the Army’s 3rd Corps Support Command say you should handle IEDs? Read this briefing to find out.


Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a hairdresser having top-secret clearance at the world’s most important nuclear weapons center. But it is kinda funny. From the Los Alamos Monitor:

Anthony Moya is a Q-cleared [top security rated] computer technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory by day and a highly skilled razor-blade-sculpting hairstylist at his own salon by night…
He remembers first discovering his interest and talent for hairstyling in the fifth or sixth grade… Moya’s parents went out dancing on Saturday nights and Moya would look over his mother’s coiffure and snip away any unruly hairs.
“Finally, my mother let me style her hair,” Moya said. “I also trimmed my father’s mustache and got them both ready to go out…“
Moya said while he continued to cut and style his family’s hair throughout the years, the timing was never right to enter styling school to earn his formal styling license.
Over two years and 1,000 hours later, Moya received his certificate in barbering, passed the state board examination, and interned at an Espanola salon.
“The only difference between a barber and a cosmetologist is barbers shave and cosmetologists do nails,” Moya said.
“Barbers have to learn to apply permanents, color, and blow dry hair, and use a curling iron. They also learn to perform facials. I am now certified in both barbering and cosmetology…
In 1979, Moya went to work at the [oft-troubled] plutonium facility at TA-55 as a materials technician and in shipping and handling… Moya now performs computer technician work at NMT-3 [the Nuclear Materials Technology division]…
“I’m just thoroughly enjoying life working at the lab and styling hair at the salon.”