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Archive for September, 2005

Wanted: AUSA

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Anyone going to next week’s Association of the U.S. Army convention in DC? I can’t make it. But I’d be psyched to have a set of eyes check out the event on Defense Tech’s behalf. E-mail me at defense-AT-defensetech-DOT-org if you’re interested.

Prosthetic Prof Climbs New Heights

Friday, September 30th, 2005

I went to Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Awards last night with pretty low motives: a chance to schmooze with some of the editors who pay my rent. Maybe I’d grab a beer or four in the process. Instead, I walked out uplifted by one of the most inspiringly cool stories I had heard in months. It came from the night’s final honoree, MIT media lab professor Hugh Herr.
hughherr.jpgAs a kid, Herr was a lousy student and good rock climber — a very good rock climber. Then, in 1982, he “became stranded on Mount Washington, New Hampshire for nearly four days in –20 F temperatures and blizzard conditions,” one biography notes. “Severe frostbite damage took its toll on his lower legs, and both of his feet had to be amputated six inches below the knee.“
Improbably, Herr swore he’d climb again. So he became a bookworm, eventually winding up in field of prosthetics. He developed a knee that “adapts to the users walking style, adjusting resistance to allow for a secure, agile gait,” Pop Mech observes. “Next, he plans to distribute sensors beyond the knee to allow the device to move in response to subtle electrical changes in muscles nearby.“
Herr is already helping out soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he is making good on his promise, to get back to climbing. In fact, he says, his new artificial legs are better than his old biological ones. Special wedge-like “feet” allow Herr to slide into cracks in the rock face that he could never use before. For ice climbing, Herr can slip attach spiky crampons to the end of his prosthetics. Or he can use Inspector Gadget–esque extending legs for extra reach.
In school, Herr told the crowd of a hundred or so at the American Museum of Natural History, he kept raising his height an inch a day, to see how long it would take for people to notice. “It took until I was about eight feet tall,” he laughed.
Standing on that stage, hopping around on his man-made legs, eight feet seemed like an understatement to me.

Rapid Fire 9/30/05

Friday, September 30th, 2005

* Iraq’s one batallion army
* Doom maker’s space ship
* Spy sats targeted
* SARS source found
* Grumpy old men invade nuke lab
* Best. Fundraiser. Ever.
* Who needs steriods?

Pentagon Weasels on Armor Payback

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Everyone in uniform knows that life ain’t fair — that, sooner or later, the government they’re trying to defend is going to mess with them, somehow. Set up roadblocks. Make their mission harder. Treat them less than fairly. It’d be crazy to expect anything less from a bureaucracy as giant and disjointed as the Defense Department. So putting up with B.S. just another part of handling the job.
soldier-Back.JPGBut this — this is too much:

Soldiers and their parents are still spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for armor they say the military wont provide. One U.S. senator said Wednesday he will try again to force the Pentagon to obey the reimbursement law it opposed from the outset and has so far not implemented…
Your expectation is that when you are sent to war, that our government does everything they can do to protect the lives of our people, and anything less than that is not good enough, said a former Marine who spent nearly $1,000 two weeks ago to buy lower-body armor for his son, a Marine serving in Fallujah.
The father asked that he be identified only by his first name Gordon because he is afraid of retribution against his son.
I wouldnt have cared if it cost us $10,000 to protect our son, I would do it, said Gordon. But I think the U.S. has an obligation to make sure they have this equipment and to reimburse for it. I just dont support Donald Rumsfelds idea of going to war with what you have, not what you want. You go to war prepared, and you dont go to war until you are prepared.
Under the law passed by Congress last October, the Defense Department had until Feb. 25 to develop regulations for the reimbursement, which is limited to $1,100 per item. Pentagon officials opposed the reimbursement idea, calling it an unmanageable precedent that will saddle the DOD with an open-ended financial burden.

So wait, let me get this straight: reimbursing 11 Bravos for their body armor is somehow “unmanageable.” But sinking hundreds of billions into a flailing, bloated modernization project that changes requirements and deadlines every couple of months, that’s perfectly OK? No, wrong. Helping soldiers and marines fight today’s war isn’t a “burden.” It should be a priority. The priority.
(Photo: Johan Spanner)

Rapid Fire 9/29/05

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

* Court: release Abu Ghraib pics
* D.I.Y. air force
* Robot’s “treasure island” loot
* Nuke lab’s hiring freeze
* Iraqi insurgency: how big?
* Galloway, beyond pissed
* MVP, so slick

(Big ups: Intel Dump)

Sat-Guided Cannon Ready to Blast

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Artillery hasn’t been all that helpful in the Iraq counterinsurgency. Even in trained hands, heavy, indirect fire is pretty indiscriminate. Bystanders often get killed, while intended targets slip away.
paladin.jpgWhich is why the Army has been bankrolling “Excalibur,” a Raytheon effort to build a 155mm artillery shell that’s guided by GPS. Think of it as the howitzer’s answer to smart bombs.
Each Excalibur round comes with a multi-function fuze with three settings — height of burst (HOB), point detonating (PD) and delay, Raytheon notes. “An HOB setting will enable soldiers and marines in contact to engage enemy forces on rooftops and in windows while the delay setting will be ideal for penetrating structures and other enemy strongpoints. The PD fuze will be effective against enemy troops, light armor and trucks.“
The company just finished a set of Excalibur tests out at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The plans are for the munition to be fielded in the next six months.

Osprey OK’d

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

It took twenty years and $19 billion. But at 4pm today, I’m told, the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board will announce its recommendation to go ahead with “full rate production” of the once star-crossed, accident-prone Osprey V-22 tiltrotor craft.
osprey_white.jpgThe fate of the hybrid aircraft has been very much in question, ever since a pair of Ospreys crashed in 2000, killing 23. This decision “gets the program off probation. It can’t be summarily cancelled now,” a source close to the program says.
It’s not exactly clear how many of the hybrid aircraft will eventually be manufactured. The President proposed budget calls for 458 Ospreys to be built into the next decade, starting with 13 next fiscal year. The Marines are ultimately scheduled to get 360 aircraft, Special Operations Command are supposed to have 50, and the Navy is slated to have 48. “Pentagon budget documents show the cost of V-22s at about $100 million each,” the Star-Telegram notes. Osprey makers Bell Helicopter say the figure is more like “$72 million and headed down.“
Those prices and those plans could change in the years to come, of course. But this much is set: A squadron of pilots starts training on the V-22 next week. And an operational squadron of nine Ospreys will be ready to fly out of North Carolina’s Marine Corps Air Station New River by 2007.
THERE’S MORE: Inside Defense has the report from the Pentagon’s testing office, which gave the thumbs-up to the V-22.
AND MORE: The watchdogs at the Project on Government Oversight still aren’t convinced. “It cant autorotate to a safe landing, has no defensive gun, lacks the ability to perform quick evasive combat maneuvers under fire, and cant descend too quickly or it will go into a dangerous roll,” they say.
AND MORE: The Osprey’s final two crashes were due to a mysterious aeronautical phenomenon known as “vortex ring state.” after re-reading Wired’s Osprey story, I can’t say I feel too good about how that’s been dealt with.

Lead test pilot Tom MacDonald of Boeing was assigned the VRS problem. “It was this mystery area,” he says. “So little research had been done on it. People wondered: Would it swallow planes alive?“
MacDonald and the engineers worked out a system. He’d take the plane to 10,000 feet, putting enough air between him and the ground so he’d be able to recover if he got into trouble. Then he’d pull the nacelles back until they were almost vertical, in helicopter conformation, slow his forward airspeed, and try to induce VRS.
“We’d fly all day long,” says Gross, copilot on a few of the test runs. “We’d fall 2,000 or 3,000 feet and recover. We’d fly back up to 10,000 feet, repeat the exercise at 1,000 feet per minute, then 1,500, then 2,000, all the way up to 5,000 feet per minute. Then we’d do it again, this time changing our airspeed.” (A typical rate of descent for a 747 passenger jet on runway approach is 700 to 800 feet per minute.) In the process MacDonald, a former Marine pilot, quadrupled the published knowledge base on VRS.
What he found was that vortex ring state is surprisingly hard to induce. He had to fly slower than 40 knots while keeping the plane in a steady position for at least five seconds, and then descend at a hot 2,200 feet per minute. He also found that in an Osprey, he could recover from the condition relatively easily, provided he had 2,000 feet of altitude to play with. In the end, the team didn’t alter the aircraft. Solution: Install a simple warning system. When a pilot pushes an Osprey toward VRS, a light flashes in the cockpit and a voice cautions, “Sink rate.” And Osprey pilots now know to pay attention to those warnings.

Rapid Fire 9/28/05

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

* Rocket-powered blimp drawn up
* LAW reinstated
* G-Men, Chinese tag team
* U.S. to Israel: No copters for you
* Marines’ green fuel
* GPS fat cat finder
* Maxwell Smart, Semper Fi
* Number two? Not!
* Back to even

(Big ups: Xeni, RC)

“Cheap, Ugly” = Good

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

The Army’s Future Combat Systems overhaul is FUBAR, we all know. But it’s just the latest in a long line of big-ticket Pentagon programs to burn cash and squander expectations.
fcs_t_300.jpgSo it there any way for the Defense Department to buy next-gen gear without picking taxpayers’ pockets and leaving soldiers ass-out? Pentagon insider Dave has a few new rules on his blog, Garfield Ridge.

– It has to be cheap…
– Only one, maybe two, leap-ahead technologies allowed per program. The rest of the program has to rely on stuff we’ve already done before…
– Congress must not care about it. If it hates it, it will cut it and ruin program stability, particularly in the early years where it’s needed most. If it loves it, it’ll add unneeded money and unrealistic demands on the program. The best programs are always the ones that Congress keeps their noses out of.
– The program must be small enough to fail.

That last one is probably the most important one of all.
Most of the Pentagon’s acquisition trouble in recent years has occurred on programs that are quite simply too big to fail. Either the requirement is one that can’t be ignored, thus forcing the development program into a fixed schedule — never a good idea to do this stuff on a deadline — or the program reaches a point where so much money has been spent on it that in the event of failure no one wants to cut their losses and try something new. The moment the contractor smells fear on the part of the Pentagon, once it knows no one in the Building has the guts to cancel the program as it goes south, that’s when the Pentagon takes it in the wazoo from industry, often willingly.
FCS, for all its necessary wisdom — after all, it makes no sense to modernize the Army one little piece at a time — FCS is precisely one of the complex systems that the Pentagon can’t seem to run right anymore, if it ever could.
Welcome to the ugly.

And read the whole thing.

Defense Tech vs. “The World”

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

You can hear me stammering through another interview on BBC/Public Radio International’s “The World” this afternoon. I’ll be talking about my favorite $450 billion science project.
THERE’S MORE: It’s online now, here.