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Archive for October, 2005

Captain America in the Forever War

Monday, October 31st, 2005

American troops in Iraq are near-suicidal. Or maybe they couldnt be happier. It all depends on the flavor of blog you read, I guess. But what I found in my time in Iraq didnt cling to any neat political storyline.
sgt_looking.jpgOver three weeks in and around Baghdad this July, I spoke to dozens and dozens of soldiers about their views on the conflict. For the most part, morale among these infantrymen and engineers and bomb-disposers was high. Shockingly high, given the fact that they didnt buy the Bush administrations rationales for the war.
Democracy? Here? Are you fucking kidding me? one sergeant laughed, as we drove near the Abu Ghraib prison. This was from a guy from helped safeguard the January round of elections. He figures the place will collapse into civil war as soon as U.S. troops leave.
But hes glad hes in Iraq, regardless. Mostly, because of the insurgents.
The guerillas in Iraq have been brutal, killing way more innocent bystanders than American occupiers or Iraqi collaborators. While I was in Baghdad, a group of soldiers in a nearby neighborhood were handing out candy to bunch of kids. Until a suicide bomber stepped in, and killed 27.
It boggles my mind, how someone can go into a crowd of kids, and kill them all. Ill never understand it. But thats why Im here, said Staff Sgt. Mark Palmer, with the 717th Ordnance Disposal Company, an Army bomb squad. Yeah, its still fun to blow stuff up. But its not the core thing. Figuring out how this shit [the bomb] works. Stopping it from hurting people. Thats the main thing.
U.S. troops are highly trained. So theyll do what theyre ordered. But in order to feel good about their mission, they need a cause. They need a bad guy, a villain, so they can play Captain America. The insurgents have been only too happy to step collectively into the role of Dr. Doom.
The result is a cycle of attack and reprisal that has nothing to do with WMD or drafting constitutions but can easily drag on for years. Most of the soldiers I spoke with didnt expect the deadly feedback loop to stop any time this decade. Im staying [in the Army] until I retire, which is another ten years, one non-commissioned officer told me. So I figure Ill be back here, what, another five or six times?
Most of these GIs were ready to whoop ass, when they first get to Iraq. Theyre part of Americas professional, increasingly-permanent military class. Which means theyve been training for years to go to war with precious few full-out battles to fight. For a solider, this is like the Super Bowl, Captain Greg Hirschey, the 717ths commanding officer, said.
But the Super Bowl is only one day long. To keep going for years and years, they need a mission, a reason to stay and fight. Washington isnt providing. The insurgents are.
And make no mistake, soldiers are staying. Id say three in four of the GIs I spoke with were planning to reenlist. The new, fat bonuses are one reason, of course. But another is the sense that there are real-life psychopaths out there that need to be stopped. It may sound corny. It may sound dumb. But thats what I saw.
THERES MORE: Now, Id be remiss if I didnt throw in a few caveats here. These soldiers we all stationed at Camp Victory, the poshest military base Ive ever seen. Its also one of the safer places would could be in a warzone. Which means better morale. Could soldiers and marines feel differently out in the sticks, where its MREs three times a day and mortars all night? You bet. Also, I was in Iraq in July. Since then, 233 American troops have died over there. That could have been a major morale-changer, too.
AND MORE: Chris is embedded with the 2–2 Batallion of the II Marine Expeditionary Force in the Anbar province. Which means you go read his blog, now.
AND MORE: Joe Katzman’s response is really worth a read.

Kidding Around

Monday, October 31st, 2005

It’s as if the U.S. Navy added 30 destroyers in three years. That’s how much the Pentagon is beefing up Tawain’s fleet, with two pairs of retired Kidd-class anti-air destroyers. The first set was transferred on Oct. 29. The second pair will be handed over in 2007.
Kidd.jpgThe Kidds were retired by the U.S. Navy in the mid-1990s and purchased by Taiwan in 2001. With the advent of the Arleigh Burke class armed with Aegis radar, Vertical Launch System for SM-2 missiles, the rail-launcher-armed Kidds became redundant, despite being less than 20 years old when retired.
At 9,000 tons displacement, the Kidds will increase by one-third the tonnage of Taiwans major surface combatant force. (Lately the U.S. has been decreasing its surface fleet by as many as ten hulls and tens of thousands of tons per year.)
Besides significantly bulking up Taiwans navy, the Kidds will give the force its first modern air-defense capability and should prove a significant deterrent against Chinas largely-outdated surface fleet, which depends heavily on land-based air cover. The Kidd deal has understandably angered China. While many in the U.S. are eager to tout China as the next superpower and a naval rival, cooler heads point out that China is heavily dependent on maritime trade and energy imports and that its naval modernization is largely intended to secure sea lines of communication and to counterbalance Indian intrusion into regional waters. Besides, on the seas China is still a generation behind the U.S. and years behind Taiwan. The Kidds only extend that disparity.
– David Axe

America’s Army Hits the X-Box

Monday, October 31st, 2005

This is my first post here at Defense Tech. Noah was kind enough to let me play in the Defense Tech sandbox for a couple of days, because I’m down here in DC to cover the Serious Games Summit. My normal gig is as Technology Correspondent for The World, an international news program co-produced by the BBC World Service in London, and WGBH public radio in Boston.
xbox_AA2.jpgAfter a long morning filled with alot of talk about the intersection of physical, informational, and cognitive worlds of gaming (somewhere in there I think I heard “inter-linked topologies,” but I hadn’t had much coffee yet, so…), I think I finally hit on some useful info.
America’s Army, the popular first person shooter, is coming out on X-Box on November 15th. But that’s not even half the story, or even the really good part of the story. The Army is working with numerous companies to expand AA, which started out as a recruitment and promotional tool, into an across-the-board training sim. We’re talking something that will be with a soldier from the recruiting station, to basic training, and right on through to the streets of Baghdad and Kandahar.
This isn’t just on the desktop. A stripped down Humvee, for example, can be put in what they’re calling a Seamless Synthetic Training Domain, surrounded by white walls. A gunner and driver can then sit in the Humvee, while a training scene — say it’s a convoy scenario in Mosul — plays out on 360 degrees worth of white screens. The sim records their hits and misses, the things they did right, and the things they did wrong. The soldiers wear vests that record the hits virtual baddies score on them, and the simulation adjusts accordingly. Other soldiers, linked via PC, can even play the bad guys in the scenario. All the information is recorded, and It can be fed back into the system for an After Action Review. Whoah.
More to come…
– Clark Boyd

Laser Rifle Dazzles?

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Granted, the thing looks fake. And no, I can’t find this supposed press release anywhere else on the web — which is usually a bad sign.
dazzler_maybe.jpgBut… c’mon. How could I resist posting about this alleged Air Force super-duper laser dazzler, especially when it’s called PHaSR? (That’s short for “Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response,” by the way.)
The Air Force Research Lab opens up around 11am eastern time. I hope to have an answer shortly after. But until then… Enjoy!

A laser technology being developed by Air Force Research Laboratory employees at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. will be the first man-portable, non-lethal deterrent weapon intended for protecting troops and controlling hostile crowds.
The weapon, developed by the laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, employs a two-wavelength laser system and is the first of its kind as a hand-held, single-operator system for troop and perimeter defense. The laser light used in the weapon temporarily impairs aggressors by illuminating or “dazzling” individuals, removing their ability to see the laser source.
The first two prototypes of the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response, or PHaSR, were built at Kirtland last month and delivered to the laboratory’s Human Effectiveness Directorate at Brooks City Base, Texas, and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico, Va. for testing.
“The future is here with PHaSR,” said program manager Capt. Thomas Wegner. Wegner is also the ScorpWorks flight commander within the Laser Division of the directorate. ScorpWorks is a unit of military scientists and engineers that develops laser system prototypes for AFRL, from beginning concept to product field testing.
The National Institute of Justice recently awarded ScorpWorks $250,000 to make an advanced prototype that will add an eye-safe laser range finder into PHaSR. Systems such as PHaSR have historically been too powerful at close ranges and ineffective but eye-safe at long ranges. The next prototype… is planned for completion in March 2006.

THERE’S MORE: “A task force charged with studying potential directed energy threats to U.S. military aircraft… has sent senior service leaders a plan to ensure next-generation planes protect pilots and crews from laser attacks,” Inside Defense reports. There’s not much detail, however, on what that paln entails, other than more laser-safe eyewear.
AND MORE: Confirmed.

Rapid Fire 10/31/05

Monday, October 31st, 2005

* Infrared vs. snipers
* Laser tag for Marines
* Ice, ice, Osprey
* B-2 engineer = spy
* “Smart dust,” for real?
* UK’s nuke city
(background here, kinda)
* “Boeing’s heritage building UFO spacecraft“
* “How to Survive a Robot Uprising”

(Big ups: RC, JQP, KR)

Jamming with the B-52s

Friday, October 28th, 2005

For months, observers have been predicting big cuts to traditional weapons programs as a result of the Defense Department’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), due in February. But on Oct. 26, Defense News quoted Ryan Henry, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, saying the QDR would instead focus on how to adapt traditional weapons to nontraditional warfare like that in Iraq. Henry cited the now-cliche example of B-52s dropping satellite-guided bombs over Afghanistan.
b52dt.jpgHenry’s statement is interesting in light of recent reports from Air Force Times that the EB-52 modification program is on the QDR chopping block. The EB-52 program would modify 16 1962-vintage B-52Hs to carry podded electronic noise jammers to foil air defenses. The first EB-52 would be ready in 2014. Currently the jamming mission is handled by the Navy’s 100 or so geriatric EA-6B Prowlers, which are due to be replaced by 90 EA-18Gs in a few years. The EB-52s would give the Air Force an airborne jamming capability it has lacked since retiring the EF-111 in 1998. While standoff jamming is definitely a mission for the kind of high-intensity warfare the Pentagon has been de-emphasizing of late, jammers like the EA-6B have proved adaptable to low-intensity warfare. This year, Prowlers began flying missions over Iraq to jam the signals that detonate IEDs.
There’s more at stake in the EB-52 program than its relevance to both high-and low-intensity warfare. NATO generals regularly cite airborne jamming as one of Europe’s major capability shortfalls. That means the West depends almost entirely on a small number of U.S. jamming aircraft to suppress air defenses in coalition air campaigns like those over Kosovo and Iraq. The EB-52 would do a lot to relieve the pressure on the sure-to-be-overworked EA-18G crews.
– David Axe

Mind Meld for Sat Sort

Friday, October 28th, 2005

Sorting through satellite imagery is tough. There are tons and tons of material, only a fraction of which can be reviewed in anything resembling a timely fashion. And very little of that is of any military use at all. Software systems can help, a bit. But, according to the mad scientists at Darpa, “the human visual system is still the best target detection apparatus” there is.
Spock_mind_meld.jpgThe agency would like to harness that system better. Not just the conscious mind. But the automatic and instant firing of neurons that goes on every time we take a look at something.
“Preliminary research shows that an analysts brain registers the discovery long before the [imagery] analyst becomes cognitively aware of it. Thus, the brain can signal the discovery three times faster than the analyst can respond,” agency program manager Amy Kruse told the DarpaTech conference last August.
As part of her “Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts” (NIA) effort, Kruse wants researchers to “discover and characterize the neural signatures for target detection events in the human brain.” The goal of the year-long study is to demonstrate “an image ‘triage’ system in which subjects are rapidly shown static imagery. Signals are classified in real time and the corresponding imagery shown is then sorted based on the classification of the neural signatures into sets of images that contain targets/regions of interest versus those that contain none.“
Lotsa luck.

The Carter Chronicles

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

It was some time in January of ’03, only a few days after Defense Tech went live, that I first got an e-mail from Phil Carter. He dug the site, and I sure liked his blog, Intel Dump. In the two and a half years since, we’ve become pals. We’ve shared beers on both coasts. Pigged out at Kosher and Cuban joints. Even split a hotel room, once. More important, maybe, the former Army captain has been a grounding influence on me as I’ve picked my way through military issues, providing level-headed responses to my not-infrequent hysteria.
So I got a lump in my throat when Phil called me one night, to tell me he was back in the Army, and headed for Iraq.
This week, Phil — a frequent Slate contributor — has a week-long diary on his return to uniformed life. It’s a must-read.

My dad volunteered to throw a backyard going-away party to gather all my friends and family in one place to send me off. The party started in a fairly jubilant mood, given the occasion; my family doesn’t do a lot of big get-togethers, so this was special despite its cause. But as the night went on and people started to leave, and I had to start saying goodbye, the night became much tougher. I had resolved not to drink much because I wanted to remember everyone and everything about my last night in Los Angeles with everyone. But when it came time to hug my grandmother for the last time, I suddenly wished I had finished the case of Sam Adams I had brought. After my family departed, leaving only my close friends, the conversation finally veered to my subject of my deployment itself. I tried to explain as much as I could, but found myself saying “I don’t know” more than any other phrase.
By the time the day came to report, I had numbed to the thought of my deployment. My checklist of tasks was complete: I had moved out, closed out my legal practice, hugged my dog, packed my bags, and said my goodbyes. Eventually, the time came to leave. My parents drove me to the airport so I could catch the 4:30 p.m. Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Nashville. We hugged at the curbside briefly, and that was it. I walked into the airport, went through security without a hassle, and sat down at Gate 13 with my bags to wait for the flight. I spent an hour hand-writing my will on the legal pad I had brought with me to write letters home, and then spent the next hour listening to my iPod, trying to relax while waiting for my flight. It would be a while before I saw Los Angeles again.

Northcom Negs New Powers

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

After the Katrina debacle, there was a need for action — or, at last, a need for the appearance of action. So President Bush went down to Jackson Square in New Orleans, and “called for a vastly expanded military role in disaster relief, including ‘reconsideration’ of a century-old law banning the active-duty military from law-enforcement duties,” Defense Tech pal Spencer Ackerman notes in this week’s New Republic.
soldier_boat.jpg

That law, the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) of 1878, is widely considered to be a cornerstone in the development of U.S. liberty. Enacted after Reconstruction, when much of the South was under military occupation (and federal troops monitored political rallies and stood guard at polling places), it sought to prevent any subsequent use of the military to perform traditional police duties.

There’s a number of strange things about Bush’s request to reconsider PCA. First off, “there’s no evidence that the PCA had anything to do with the administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina,” Ackerman observes. Second, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the military’s upper echelons who thinks PCA is getting in their way.

When I asked Bush’s senior Pentagon official for homeland defense, Assistant Secretary Paul McHale, whether the PCA is a relic of an outmoded era, he immediately responded “absolutely not.” And, last week, Admiral Timothy Keating, who heads U.S. Northern Command, told The New York Times that “I’m not at all convinced that we need to go back and revise Posse Comitatus…“
The real obstacle to more effective disaster relief isn’t the PCA; it’s the composition of the military itself. Three years after its establishment, NORTHCOM — the regional military command responsible for the continental United States — still doesn’t have much in the way of designated military assets, such as aircraft or ships, that can facilitate rapid deployment of troops or civilian aid workers in the event of a catastrophic disaster. (To his credit, Keating is working on a plan to create a rapid-response active-duty force to assist Guardsmen in a domestic crisis…)
“If we expect [Defense] to arrive on the scene in large numbers 24 hours after an event,” says McHale, “we’re going to have to significantly alter our force structure, training, and equipping of this department, and significantly reduce our expectations of response normally tasked to state and local governments under our federal system.”

Talkin’ Tasers

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

The ironies started early. Here we were, in a museum devoted to things that kill — from lances to revolvers to laser weapons of the “Western Space Alliance.” But inside the cranberry-colored auditorium at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, we 120-or-so white guys gathered to talk about weapons that are specifically designed not to cause lasting harm.
taser_side_mirror.JPGMost of the presenters at Jane’s 8th Annual Less-Lethal Weapons Conference — and most of the audience — were cops or soldiers or weapons salesmen or military-funded academics. So I figured the presentations would mostly sing the praises of these weapons. That’s the way it would’ve worked back home, in the U.S.
But things were different here. Of the eleven speakers today, two were outwardly hostile. Five more expressed serious reservations about “less-lethals,” generally — and about specifically about Tasers, the highest profile of the weapons.
As the critiques piled up, however, I got increasingly nervous. Because I had been told it was my job to “stir things up” at the confab. So I had prepared a pretty tough analysis of the often ham-handed, often squirrelly way that Taser International markets its products and deals with the press. (Click here for the prepared text.)
So I gulped, and got on stage. Instantly, I was told by the moderator to make it quick, because things were running behind schedule. Gulp again. But I took the time to start with a beer joke. At least it would get the Canadians in the room laughing.
As I plowed through my talk , I could see the host getting more and more uncomfortable. See, Taser was one of the main sponsors of the conference. And I was at least the fifth or sixth guy peeing on the company’s parade. About three-quarters of the way through the talk, the moderator cut me off. I guess it was getting late. Plus, the moderator wanted to assure the audience — and the folks from Taser, standing in the back — that my talk was “billed” as a speech on “press relations.” It was a mistake to focus too much on one company, he added.
I got back on the mic, and emphasized that I wasn’t trying to beat up on the company (well, not its products, anyway). Taser was just a case study. It’s the less-lethal weapons-maker we all knew best in the States. And how it’s perceived will reflect on other less-lethal firms — and users — for years to come. The audience clapped to that. And afterwards, a rep from Taser said he had enjoyed the talk. He’d fly in from London, he told me, to personally show me around the company’s Arizona HQ.

(more…)