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Archive for July, 2005

FCS Jitters

Friday, July 29th, 2005

fcs-bck.jpgThe latest General Accounting Office study on the Army’s massive modernization program finds — surprise — that there are ‘development risks’ involved in the the communications components. Since Future Combat Systems, or FCS, will network manned and unmanned vehicles and weapons, if the communications don’t work, the system is a dud.
Fair enough. The larger problem is whether the constant demand for accounting and oversight that drives GAO and its congressional masters is making it harder for the US to maintain technological excellence in military space. To be risk-free, a program would need to depend on the technologies of the 1980s. The hard question is whether failure and waste are unavoidable companions when making better weapons or technical intelligence systems.
The answer to that question is yes, failure and waste are inevitable and maybe even necessary for real innovation. Corona, the original spy satellite, failed in its first five launches. The first 13 missions were failures and produced no pictures. The expense was enormous — if you adjust for inflation, the total program cost (over 12 years) may have been $40 billion. Of all Corona missions, only 70% were successful. But overall, Corona was an immense success. This sounds like an apology for waste, fraud and abuse, but it’s actually a suggestion that it might be worth tilting the balance in how the US thinks about space back towards risk taking and away from accounting.

DARPATech 2005 and Tech Leadership

Friday, July 29th, 2005

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Every year DARPA has its own annual gathering of the clans DARPATech. This one is the 24th, scheduled for the week of August 9 in Anaheim. The theme for 2005 (and for 2004) is Bridge the Gap. The gap is the difference between what U.S. force can do today and the technological possibilities for the future warfighter. DARPATech includes an overview of each program. The link below goes to the public slides from DARPATech 2004. Its a quick, easy way to see what DOD is up to in technology.
The issue that DARPA had to face this year is whether it is not doing enough on the R side of R&D, particularly in basic research. There were hearings on this in Congress (prompted by a New York Times story) where DARPAs Director, Anthony Tether, defended DOD spending on basic research. DARPA gots $3 billion in 2004 and put a good hunk of it into basic research that could have security payoffs down the road.
The problem is not with DARPA, but with the sense of unease felt by many people as to whether the U.S. is spending enough on research to ensure its long-term security. Some of this is prompted by China and its commitment to R&D, some of it is from the concern created by the long (and largely fruitless) public debate over the alleged decline of education in the U.S. and some comes from the anxiety over globalization and the state of manufacturing in the U.S.
The U.S. spends more than other nations on R&D, but the pressures on this spending have been to focus on the life sciences and on development, rather than basic research. Basic research in phsyics, math, IT and other ‘hard sciences are the most useful for military purposes, but the benefits may take years to arrive. Physicists started talking about nanotechnology in the 1950s; products didnt begin to show up forty years later. Funding for these areas has either fallen or been flat for years.
The bottom line is that while the U.S. has done more than other countries to make scientific research and technological leadership one of the pillars of its military strength, we may not be making the investments needed to keep this pillar strong. The bumper sticker for this problem is: the country with the most physicists wins. Its hard to increase funding, however, in a year of big deficits and an active war.
Congress has started to worry about technological strength and has asked the National Academy to look at how the U.S. can maintain its leadership its study starts in August and is supposed to be done before the end of the year.
Link to DARPATech 2004

What, no blimps?

Friday, July 29th, 2005

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Want to secure your borders? Heres a state of the art model to look at:
– First, a razor wire fence;
– Then a road for vehicle patrols;
– Another fence that sends out an alarm when it is cut;
– A 400 foot gap covered with motion sensors and night vision cameras (the Soviets had a similar strip along their western border, which they would rake every morning and then have patrols look for footprints during the day — of course, they also used mines);
– Finally, another fence with more sensors.

This is what Israel plans to put around Gaza after its withdrawal, to prevent infiltration by terrorists. The cost is about $2.3 million per mile. For the 2000-plus mile U.S. southern border, the cost of this would get close to $5 billion, and the cost would more than double for a similar system on the longer northern border.
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The Border Patrol Service (part of DHS) has been increased in size several times since 2001, but the steady growth in the number of patrols and sensors has not stopped the flow of immigrants (and its worth asking whether it best serves the national interest to stop immigrants coming to the U.S. for economic reasons, as opposed to blocking illegal crossings by terrorists and criminals).
A high tech fortified border might cost too much even for the U.S., suggesting that in this case, a solution is likely to require coming up with better immigration rules rather relying only on more patrollers and a technological fix.

Hack Attack

Friday, July 29th, 2005

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In 2002, the Department of Justice indicted (in absentia) a resident of the UK, Gary McKinnon, of hacking into DOD and NASA computers and causing almost a million dollars worth of damages. Yesterday, they got around to trying to extradite him for trial.
McKinnon, a self described UFO fan, was apparently searching for files labeled “Area 51″ or other evidence that the US is concealing all it knows about extraterrestrial life. McKinnon says that any damage was accidental, when he tried to cover his tracks by erasing data. He must have been disappointed, as he found nothing about UFOs.
His biggest crime appears to be that he kept 2000 DOD and NASA computers from being able to access the internet for three days in the Spring of 2002 (although many were still able to send and receive email). As with most computer crimes, no one noticed any visible tremors of panic in the DC area.
McKinnon did not, DOD says, gain access to any classified information. He got access to unclassified systems as a result of sloppy security practices (not changing the default password), but he now says that he was closed out by DOD administrators soon after getting in.
70 years in jail (which is what the US is threatening him with) seems excessive. That an unemployed Brit with a UFO mania was able to tromp around unclassified DOD computers is embarrassing, and he deserves a stiff fine, some community service, and maybe a little jail time.
The real issue is who else is tromping around, perhaps a bit more skillfully, not leaving tracks, and not confining themselves to searching for UFO data. McKinnon himself said “I was always very frightened when I realized there were always other people from all over the world on there [the DOD networks].“
Even if McKinnon was unable to access classified data, people at DOJ say (off the record) that he was able to look at weapons R&D material that shouldn’t be public. The internet has been a tremendous boon for espionage, and if McKinnon found a way to get in, we have to assume that other, more professional types, did so as well.

UCAV — Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

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Some people in the Pentagon and the industry wonder if the F-35 will be the last manned fighter the U.S. will ever build. I don’t think it will come to that, but they say to watch UCAVs [unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or killer drones] and the possibility for deploying a UCAV/manned combination (1 plane, 1 or more UCAVs).
This could have real merit. The backseater would fly a companion aircraft. That would increase the deliverable payload per sortie and give the manned craft the option of letting the UCAV do things that seemed unacceptably risky. You can think of other scenarios where this could be handy. It’s a step beyond the idea of UCAV as a more capable UAV, operated by someone on the ground far away.
The technology is not there yet, but better UAV’s (that automate more of the routine tasks for flying that pilots do almost without thinking) and code from gaming software make this a possibility. Think of it not as independent flying robots but a new kind of forward air control (and the military implications of game technology deserve its own entry).
The other question is whether UCAV programs can recover from the summer movie “Stealth,” which has gotten a number of terrible reviews. Ive only seen the trailers, so I cant say. The picture [a Photoshop special — ed.] is from DARPA, by the way, and makes it look like some of these programs are pretty far along.

Phrase of the Week — Complex Battlespace

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

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“In general, a more complex force prevails over a less complex force.“
Arthur Cerbrowski, Director, Office of Force
Transformation, Department of Defense
The first time I read this, I didn’t like it, perhaps because of the old Army adage KISS. Then I thought that Admiral Cerbrowski probably had a different definition of complex in mind. What he might mean is that a complex force is one that is able to create more and different options for action against an opponent.
If this is right, a complex force would do better in a complex battle space. Complex battle space is a dignified way of saying messy. Battlefields have always been messy, but the geographic scope of battle, the rapid pace at which it occurs, and the increase in the number of actors make the conflicts since the ’91 Gulf War (with combat mainly between two opposing forces, in uniform, in a mostly uninhabited desert) very different. Now, civilians don’t always have time to get out of the way, and there are other agencies, NGOs, the UN, press, private security contractors as well as insurgents and local security forces. Instead of two sides, there may be nine or ten that are often indistinguishable from each other.
Complex battlespace also involves extending the scope for combat, to include ground, air, space, naval and information (or cyber). We might want to amend the statement to say that a force that is better at managing complexity will do better than a force that still tries to keep it simple.

More Surveillance

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

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The French have been inspired by the bombings in London and Egypt to put in place a series of new anti-terrorist measures. Prime Minister de Villepan announced yesterday that the government will ask the National Assembly in August for a new law to expand video surveillance and to require ISPs and telcos to preserve email and phone data for several years. Cameras would be set up in the metro, city squares and other public places. One goal is to install 4,000 cameras in Paris buses by the end of the year. The French, who have tightly controlled the number of cameras until now, were apparently impressed by how cameras helped the British identify bombing suspects.
Another goal is to introduce biometric ‘smart passports’ (with a microchip) by October. This will be the precursor to a biometric national identity card (French citizens are required to have a national ID, and it doesn’t provoke the complaints you see in the US or UK).
France already has tough anti-terror laws and very competent police and security forces. When Paris makes up its mind to do something in the security arena, it usually moves pretty quickly.
Link (in French)

PLA Catch-All

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

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DODs 2005 report on Chinas military power is actually pretty level-headed. I was expecting something more along the lines of the old Soviet Military Reviews, which routinely attributed astounding technical advances to the Soviets. The noise level in Washington over the yuan and CNOOC also led me to expect something more vociferous.
One development regarding Chinas military that hasnt gotten as much attention is a proposed Commerce Department regulation that would restrict U.S. high tech trade with China. In nonproliferation terms, this would be a catch-all rule for exports that could make a significant contribution to the PLA. The export wouldnt have to go directly to the PLA itself to be caught.
The catch-all was developed in the late 1980s in reaction to an episode where Iraq was buying a highly-specialized industrial tool for its WMD programs and the US found it had no way to stop the sale. The regulation implementing the catch-all is called the Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative (EPCI), which gives the government the ability to stop any sale by a U.S. company when it thinks that the export might contribute to the proliferation of WMD. Companies hate EPCI, but its been used with restraint.
The U.S. already blocks military exports to China, so a new catch-all for the PLA would apply only to commercial goods. The scope of a catch-all might be more limited than EPCI, in that it might apply only to a list of high tech goods, but even this could still have a pretty broad reach, particularly as it would likely focus on commercial high tech products. The Chinese blame the trade imbalance on U.S. technology restrictions and say the catch-all will only make things worse, but this is nonsense. Its not supported by the numbers, which suggest that U.S. exports to China would not increase very much if all sanctions were lifted.
Most people recognize that a catch-all wont stop PLA modernization. China cant make advanced weaponry, but while it tries to build a modern defense industry, it can buy from Russia. It also gets military technology from Israel and it would like to add Europe to its suppliers (and some Europeans would love to sell). The catch-all wont affect the arms purchases that are the basis of Chinas military modernization, although it raises the stakes for the EU if it tries again to lift its own arms embargo.
The catch-all might be aimed at Information Technology. China envies the U.S. military and is trying to duplicate the progress in information warfare/netcentric operations/C4ISR that is at the core of transformation. Since IT exports from Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Europe wont be affected, its not clear how much benefit well get from the catch-all, but we cannot dismiss the possibility of conflict with China as completely improbable. I still think its better to focus on making sure that the U.S. maintains technological leadership rather than worrying about how to slow Chinese economic growth.
Links to the report and a story on the catch-all.

Buy or Build

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

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It keeps getting harder and more expensive to build modern weapons. The combination of cost and complexity drives companies from the market. The most noticeable effect has been on the emerging economies that tried to become arms producers. Brazil, India, Taiwan, Korea, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa all began major arms programs in the 1970s and 1980s. Even when there was substantial foreign assistance, these countries couldnt sustain their programs. A few decided to specialize in niche production, but none could bear the development costs of major next-generation systems. In those cases where they persevered, the systems they developed tended to be over-expensive, underpowered variants of modern weaponry. This is one reason why all of these countries were also attracted to WMD — its cheaper and easier to build. In the West, shrinking budgets, cost and complexity drove defense industrial consolidation.
Making weapons systems requires experience, databases, and integration skills that cant be acquired quickly. Today, only the U.S., Russia and Europe can make a full range of advanced weapons. This is particularly true for combat aircraft, which brings us to India. India was a Soviet client for decades when it came to arms purchases (Britain sold them used aircraft carriers). India is now in the market for a new fighter and, in a shift, is looking at Western sources. With a planned purchase of 126 aircraft, this is one the last big deals out there. The contenders include Boeings F/A-18, Lockheeds F-16, the Eurofighter and Dassaults Rafaele. The Russians will probably offer the SU-30M. All are good planes.
Boeing has upped the ante by also offering to coproduce the F/A-18 in India with HAL, Indias big government-owned aerospace firm. Coproduction does not lower the cost for the acquirer. The planes built at the foreign facility are usually more expensive. The hope is that some of the integration skills and experience will rub off onto indigenous programs. When the U.S. and Japan began co-production of fighter aircraft in the 1980s, there were shrieks from protectionists that we were teaching the Japanese how to swallow the aerospace industry, they would soon move over into commercial aircraft, etc. None of this happened, nor is it likely to happen with India. The F/A-18 is a great aircraft, but it entered service in 1981 (the last one, much improved, was built twenty years later).
The trend in the global arms industry is to downsize and consolidate. Few countries can afford to sustain modern arms industries, but if India (or China) commits to spend billions of dollars for at least a decade, it could enter the small club of countries able to produce modern combat aircraft. For now its cheaper (and better) to buy than to build.
Posted by Jim Lewis

Unmanned is better

Tuesday, July 26th, 2005

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Not many people would try to drive an 24 year old American car coast to coast on Interstate 80 this summer, but thats a fair description of the launch of the Shuttle Discovery, built in 1981 and flown into space many times. Discovery is a well maintained antique that wont be retired until 2010. NASAs Return to Flight Task Group oversaw the implementation of 15 recommendations made after the Columbia breakup and Discovery is a much improved craft that is safer than any of its predecessors.
The shuttle is a flying truck with no military applications. NASA likes this, but when the Shuttle concept was first discussed (ancient history: the Nixon Administration) Air Force played a role in its design as people assumed that there would be military activities that the shuttle could perform. This was before it became clear that unmanned craft did better at everything in space.
There is still an attraction for a space plane or trans-atmospheric craft, albeit unmanned, that could be based in the United States and perform Afghanistan-like air bombardments without the need for expensive overseas deployments, bases, or multiple refueling. The latest program is called FALCON (Force Application and Launch from the Continental United States), part of a larger concept called Global Strike that guides Air Force thinking about its future role. FALCON phase I would be a hypersonic glider not really a space plane. FALCON phase II would be a reusable, sub-orbital UAV.
FALCON is the latest in a long line of hypersonic aircraft or space plane programs that the U.S. has started. Unlike the earlier efforts, which were usually abandoned somewhere in the middle of testing, this one may actually enter into service, in part because of the skills and technologies developed for long range UAVs like Global Hawk. Seeing FALCON as a space weapon excites arms controllers, but in its first phase, despite its long range and high altitude, its not really a space vehicle.
Falcon raises the question of whether the US civil space program should abandon reusable spacecraft and return to an Apollo-like single use vehicle like the planned CEV (cheaper, reliable, old fashioned). Note to space-race watchers: the Europeans recently announced they would support a new Russian plan for a space plane named Kliper that could replace the Soyuz capsule. Kliper would have the capabilities of a king-cab pickup truck (6 passengers, 1000 lbs. of cargo).