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Archive for March, 2006

“A Mushroom Cloud over Las Vegas…”

Friday, March 31st, 2006

…Is what will almost, but apparently not quite, be seen on June 2. According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency , the dust cloud from Divine Strake, a massive conventional explosion scheduled to take place at the Nevada Test Site this summer, “may reach an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) [but] is not expected to be visible off the Nevada Test Site.”


The open-air test will ignite 700 tons of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil, good for 593 tons of high-explosives equivalent, according to the Washington Post . The Associated Press describes the test as the largest-ever open-air chemical explosion at the Nevada site by a factor of forty. Due to the size of the blast and its sensitive location at the home of the United States’ erstwhile nuclear test program DTRA has taken the trouble to warn the Russians ahead of time of the upcoming test.

The tests purpose, according to Defense News, is “to examine ground shock effects on deeply buried tunnel structures.” The WaPo describes the test as “a conventional alternative” to the politically ornery Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or “nuclear bunker-buster.”

Heres my $64,000 question, though: is this (700-ton!) explosive really a conventional “alternative,” or is it a stand-in being used to simulate a low-yield nuke?

By the way a “strake is “a straightedge used for leveling a bed of sand .”

Center for Defense Information science fellow Haninah Levine has been passing tips and comments to Defense Tech for months. This is his first post for the site.

(Big ups: Xeni, DS)
UPDATE 11:08 AM: “Ain’t nothing you can do when it’s Strakes on a motherfucking plain.“
UPDATE 04/03/06 12:15 PM: John Fleck, from the Albuquerque Journal, has the answer to whether Divine Strake is nuke-related. “A Pentagon budget request is explicit about its
purpose: to “improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage.“
Meanwhile, Globalsecurity​.org decodes the media gobbledygook surrounding the Divine Strake test.
UPDATE 04/03/06 5:15 PM:“In response to an email earlier today, a DTRA spokesperson confirmed that Divine Strake is the same event that is described in DTRA budget documents as being a low-yield nuclear weapons shock simulation,” the FAS Strategic Security Blog notes.

It also turns out that Divine Strake is “an integral part” of STRATCOM’s new Global Strike mission, which is normally reported to develop mainly non-nuclear capabilities against time-urgent targets. Global Strike is one of the plillars of the Bush administrations so-called New Triad which is said to be reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

Army’s About Face on Soldier-Bought Armor

Friday, March 31st, 2006

sov-2-front.jpgAP: “Just six months after the Pentagon agreed to reimburse soldiers who bought their own protective gear, the Army has banned the use of any body armor that is not issued by the military.”

In a new directive, effective immediately, the Army said it cannot guarantee the quality of commercially bought armor, and any soldier wearing it will have to turn it in and have it replaced with authorized gear.
Army officials told The Associated Press on Thursday the order was prompted by concerns that soldiers or their families were buying inadequate or untested commercial armor from private companies — including the popular Dragon Skin gear made by California-based Pinnacle Armor.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is usually mega-critical of the Pentagon’s higher-ups, agrees with the Army this time. “The Army has to ensure some level of quality… They don’t want soldiers relying on equipment that is weak or substandard,” executive director Paul Rieckhoff tells the AP.
But Soldiers for the Truth contends that, “Despite all the evidence to the contrary, including [Army Program Executive Office] Soldier’s own ballistic tests conducted at two Army research laboratories that irrefutably proved Dragon Skin was a superior product, the officers charged with providing America’s warriors with the best protection possible continue to maintain that the Army’s home-grown Interceptor OTV body armor is superior.” The site also has the internal Army e-mail telling commanders to diss the Dragon Skin.

A. There may be Soldiers deployed in OIF/OEF who are wearing a commercial body armor called “Dragon Skin,” made by Pinnacle Armor, in lieu of their issued Interceptor Body Armor (IBA). Media releases and related advertising imply that Dragon Skin is superior in performance to IBA. The Army has been unable to determine the veracity of these claims.
B. The Army has been involved in the development of Dragon Skin and the different technology it employs. In its current state of development, Dragon Skin’s capabilities do not meet Army requirements. In fact, Dragon Skin has not been certified by the Army for protection against several small arms threats being encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

The Naked Cartridge

Friday, March 31st, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen: Jimmy Wu. He’s a 1st Lieutenant in the Alabama National Guard, an MIT grad in mechanical engineering, and a missile defense systems engineer at Boeing. (Nice resume, hunh?) Jimmy also, in his words, “loves to shoot.” So ammo is the subject in the first of what I hope will be a long line of posts for Defense Tech.

Soldiers hate lugging gear around, especially in a hot and sweaty place like Iraq. But going without ammo — they hate that even more. So they load up on bullets, when they go on patrol.

cased_caseless.JPGA different kind of ammunition, being tested out by the Army, could help. Caseless ammunition give us a lighter round, allowing the soldier to carry more of ‘em. A regular cartridge has the bullet, the casing, and the propellant powder inside the casing. In most rifle ammunition, the casing is bigger than the bullet. Caseless ammunition discards the brass and instead molds the propellant around the bullet, giving a lighter and more compact round. For example, a soldier carrying the HK G-11 rifle can carry up to 10 times more ammunition, for the equal weight, than a soldier with an M-16.

Caseless ammunition is not a new idea. The concept has been with us as long as the auto-loading rifle, but it took awhile for the technology to mature. Back in the 1980s, the US Army tried out caseless ammunition under the Advanced Combat Rifle program, but it didn’t go anywhere following the end of the Cold War. Germany did the same to their HK G-11.

Today, following experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army is paying attention again to soldier load. The Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center has been working on a technology demonstration program, with a light machinegun prototype to be built FY06. Perhaps this time around, caseless ammunition will finally take hold in the United States.

– Jimmy Wu

iRobots Sell, But Who’s Buying?

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

irobots_shelf.JPGSomeone must be using them, I guess. Otherwise, why would Naval Sea Systems Command buy another $26 million worth of iRobot’s explosive-disposal machines? But I’ve never met a bomb squad technician who actually bothered with one of the things. Too flimsy, they all say. Too hard to operate.
The Baghdad Bomb Squad used their iRobots to decorate their shop. Not far away, at the U.S. military’s central robot depot for Iraq, the iRobots sat on shelves, serenely gathering dust, while Foster-Miller’s Talon robots would come back, scarred and in pieces, after being chewed up by a bomb.
Foster-Miller, though, doesn’t have the PR megaphone that iRobot does. It doesn’t have a cute, little household machine to go along with its battlefield models. And when you go to military trade shows, you only see Foster-Miller sporadically. iRobot always seems to have a booth. Maybe there’s a connection, somewhere in there, to that big sale?
(Big ups: JQP)
UPDATE 1:50 PM: Of course. I shoulda figured. “Sen. John Kerry Visits iRobot to Congratulate Company on $26 Million U.S. Navy Contract.”

Stealth’s Radioactive Secret

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

This is the first in two-part series from exotic weapons guru David Hambling.
Theres a simple technology that could transform civil aviation, slashing fuel consumption, reducing greenhouse emissions and cutting noise. The problem is, nobody knows about it yet. It’s a military secret.
Stealth01.jpg The way technology migrates from classified weapons programs to everyday life is the theme of my book, Weapons Grade. (Did I mention it was out in paperback this week?) We wouldnt have jet aircraft, computers or satellite communications without such programs. But when they stay secret, the public benefit is lost. What would have happened to the electronics industry if the transistor had not been declassified in 1949?
Plasma aerodynamics offers tantalizing promises of improving aircraft performance. By producing a thin layer of charged particles around an aircraft you can change the behavior of the boundary layer, significantly reducing friction. The charged layer also absorbs radar, improving stealth.
When my colleague Justin Mullins wrote about the subject for New Scientist magazine back in 2000, it seemed to be an obscure Russian technology dating from the late 70s which the US was just beginning to examine. But it offered real benefits, with a potential drag reduction of up to 30%.

A cut in drag of 1 per cent means you can increase an airliner’s payload by about 10 per cent, or it could simply fly farther or faster, Mullins pointed out, Just imagine the effect this could have on cash-strapped airlines.

The Russians seemed to be years ahead, even marketing a plasma stealth add-on device said to reduce radar returns by a factor of a hundred.
He concludes by wondering if the technology can actually work in practice.

Either the new labs are a huge waste of time and money, or the American military knows something we don’t.

As it turns out, they certainly do.
A lot of information on stealth disappeared from the public domain decades ago when the whole subject turned black. Which was why I was surprised to find the original patent for plasma stealth still intact.
Patent 3,127,608 is called “Object Camouflage Method And Apparatus,” and “relates to a method of making aircraft or other objects invisible to radar.” The inventor, one Arnold L. Eldredge, describes the theoretical basis of plasma stealth accurately.
The most surprising thing is the date. The patent was filed on August 6th, 1956. The technology has been around for fifty years.
But the big problem is with his apparatus Eldredge uses an electron gun, which would be way too big to carry on an aircraft. In fact, thats a problem with this whole plasma idea. Apparatus to generate the millions of volts needed is big, bulky and impractical; even these days the Russians are talking 100 Kg and tens of kilowatts.
But there is a way — check out Patent 4,030,098 (1962) Method and means for reducing reflections of electromagnetic waves assigned to the Secretary of the Army and the rather similar Patent 3,713,157 (1964) belonging to North American Aviation, later absorbed by Boeing Energy Absorption by a Radioisotope Produced Plasma
Both of these use the same basic concept: a coating of radioactive material producing a flux of either Alpha of Beta particles ionize the air, producing the desired layer of plasma. Its a clever solution. Radioactive paint weighs virtually nothing, does not require any power input and can be dirt cheap. One of the suggested emitters is Strontium-90, which is produced in abundance as a waste product by nuclear reactors.
Its also quite safe. With a thin protective coating to prevent it from flaking off, the soft radiation (unlike dangerous Gamma radiation) is not a hazard to pilot or maintenance personnel. This type of material is only dangerous if inhaled or ingested.
I checked out the idea with some people who know about these things — Martin Streetly, Editor of Jane’s Radar & Electronic Warfare Systems and Professor Igor Alexeff, former President of the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society and an authority on plasma technology.
Both confirmed that the idea, though exotic, was sound enough in theory. Interestingly, neither had come across the idea before. And both observed one obvious disadvantage from the point of view of stealth. The radiation levels involved 10 Curies per square centimeter would give the plane a visible glow at night, making it a beacon to enemy air defenses.
Did this problem mean that the whole idea was shelved — or were radioactive stealth coatings taken further?
Well be looking at some surprising answers in part two
David Hambling

Highway Watch Revisited

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

As I mentioned the other day, over the next couple of weeks, a bunch of new voices are going to join the chorus here at Defense Tech. The first to take a solo is IBM homeland security analyst Christian Beckner, who runs my favorite domestic defense blog, Homeland Security Watch.
Since 9/11, there’s been a ton of attention paid to airport security. The job of locking down ports and rail yards has drawn attention, too. But what about trucks? After all, truck and car bombs have long been terrorist favorites. That’s the topic Christian takes on in his first post.

tankertruck.jpgFleet Owner magazine has an article today that interviews the departing director of the American Trucking Association’s Highway Watch program, cites the program’s accomplishments, and highlights some of the challenges that it faces:

To date, Highway Watch has trained nearly 250,000 transportation professionals to identify and report emergencies and suspicious activities. [Don] Rondeau noted that although many large carriers have been trained and developed security protocols, he believes vulnerabilities remain in many medium and small trucking companies.

“I think that it will be difficult but we must do it,” Rondeau said. We have to recognize that the owner-operator and the mid-sized trucking companies make up the bulk of the industry. They make up a significant portion of the risk associated with any potential event. If youre a bad guy would you take advantage of a large corporation, or a guy thats driving in his office? At the end of the daywed be remiss if we didnt make sure that all members that are elements of the transportation sector could harden their security.”

I agree that these are real risks. The security of an open system like trucking is in a sense only as good as its weakest link. That’s why I worry that we haven’t done enough to secure the trucking sector, especially hazmat trucks, and the 770,000 shipments of hazardous materials that are moved on trucks each day. As I noted in a post in December 2005, the only two significant things that DHS has really done on trucking security are fund Highway Watch and conduct background checks on hazmat drivers. And while useful, that is not enough.
Does the trucking sector need the same degree of security as the aviation system? Absolutely not, since the threats and consequences are different, and the system is inherently difficult to protect. But we know that terrorists have used trucks dozens of times to carry out attacks. MIPT’s terrorism database includes 432 incident documents that include the word “truck.” And we know that there are scenarios where a truck can be used to cause substantial damage, both from painful experience and from hypothetical scenarios such as an intentional BLEVE. (See this video of an accidental LPG tanker truck BLEVE).
The threats and needs for trucking security are without a doubt greater than the level of funding that DHS has provided to address them. Instead, the DHS FY 2007 budget request shows little interest in trucking security; funding for Highway Watch (via the trucking industry security grant program) is nowhere to be found, and the TSA wants to eliminate funding for a hazardous materials truck tracking pilot project which is funded at $4 million this year. And there are no new initiatives to supercede these programs, as far as I can tell.
More thought needs to be given to a strategic, layered approach to trucking security — one that has a role for Highway Watch, but doesn’t end there, and includes activities such as better training and enhanced information-sharing for state Highway Patrols, incentives for the voluntary inclusion of security tools in truck telematic systems, a more direct role for security investment in the Intelligent Transportation Systems funding stream, and integration with air and maritime security activities.
– Christian Beckner, cross-posted from Homeland Security Watch.

Best. Bomber. Ever.

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

This may just be my favorite Aviation Week article of all time. It explores, in depth, just how influential the B-2 bomber has been; a quarter-century later, plane-makers are still leveraging lessons they learned from building the thing.
Best of all — and most unusually, for AvWeek — the article is actually written (for the most part) in English, not in Pentagonese or aeronautical engineer patois. So we can all appreciate how freakin’ cool the B-2 really is.
b2_flight.jpgBy almost any measure, the bomber’s development was one of the largest, most technically complex, expensive and demanding programs in aerospace history. But the final product dramatically changed air combat forever. The B-2’s “stealth” or low observability (LO) enables unprecedented penetration of enemy territory, essentially neutralizing very costly air defense systems. Precision weapon delivery in all weather conditions, day or night, changed an air warfare tenet from “sorties per target” to “numbers of targets per sortie.” In the B-2’s case, a single bomber carrying 16 conventional weapons can destroy 16 targets. The same mission once would have required dozens of aircraft dropping hundreds of bombs…
[The B-2 relied on] all-composite skins and structures–the first aircraft to use composites so extensively. This challenge was considered so risky that, for a while, a second team was set up to design an aluminum wing in parallel. A metal structure would have been much heavier, greatly reducing the B-2’s range-payload capability. Thus, a considerable effort was devoted to developing a composite version, and it paid off; the aluminum-wing option was dropped before the first Preliminary Design Review took place. “Today, [developing a composite wing] seems straightforward, because the world’s used to composite vehicles. But it was a big deal then,” Myers notes.
The bomber would have to be designed as an integral system, then manufactured to extremely tight tolerances, to meet LO requirements. Consequently, the B-2 became the first aircraft designed completely via computers, ensuring design and fabrication phases were tightly coordinated, Myers says. However, the analytical models and computer-aided-design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) tools to accomplish this weren’t available in the early 1980s.
In particular, the active flight control system dictated that the entire aircraft be modeled precisely. “I could easily count on one hand the number of people in the [U.S.] who had tried to go through the analytical process for an [active] flight control system,” says Myers, who headed that critical risk-closure area at the time…
During the Cold War, weapon system performance was given top priority, trumping cost considerations. Whatever resources were deemed necessary to meet national security goals, they were made available, despite the cost.
“We kept a top-10 list of [B-2 concerns] on the briefing-room wall,” Myers recalls. “We were seven years into the program before ‘cost’ made that list.” But those days are gone. “I’m not sure we’ll ever see another program like that again,” he adds.

Rapid Fire 03/29/06

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

*Can Ospreys keep from crashing?
* DHS “brain drain“
* Predator 3, IED-planters 0
* Coal = jet fuel?
“Kinder, gentler explosives“
* Stealth robo-sub unveiled
* Drone budget, broken down
* Warthog, upgraded
* Downed pilot beacon flicks on
* Blimp/plane mashup
* Remembering the original RF jammers

(Big ups: HT, RC)

Mini-Sensors for “Military Omniscience”

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

clens_hand_only.JPGSpotting insurgents, sorting out friend from foe it’s beyond tough in todays guerilla war zones. So tough, that no single monitor can be counted on to handle the job. The Pentagon’s answer: build a set of palm-sized, networked sensors that can be scattered around, and work together to detect, classify, localize, and track dismounted combatants under foliage and in urban environments. Its part of a larger Defense Department effort to establish military omniscience and ubiquitous monitoring.
The military has been working on gadgets for a while, now, that can be left behind in a bad neighborhood or a jihadist training site, and monitor the situation. These Camouflaged Long Endurance Nano-Sensors (CLENS) would be an order of magnitude smaller than previous surveillance gear of its type — just 60 milimeters long, and 150 grams.
Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, also wants the monitors to take up a 10,000th of the power of previous sensors. That would give the CLENS enough juice to keep watch over an area for up to 180 days.
clens_diagram.JPGThe way they’d keep watch would be different, too. Not as a individual sensors, but as a network of monitors, communicating with ultra wideband radios. The same frequencies could be used as a kind of radar, to track objects and people within the sensor net.
“The best way to learn about an adversary what hes done, what hes doing, and what hes likely to do — is through continual observation using as many observation mechanisms as possible. We call this persistent surveillance,” Dr. Ted Bially, head of Darpa’s Information Exploitation Office, told a conference last year. “Weve learned that occasional or periodic snapshots dont tell us enough of what we need to know. In order to really understand whats going on we have to observe our adversaries and their environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, week-in and week-out.“
According to its recently-released budget, Darpa hopes to hand over its new, minature, persistent sensors to Special Operations Command by the end of fiscal year 2007.
UPDATE 8:50 AM: Speaking of military omniscience, Darpa’s “Combat Zones That See” effort, meant to network together an entire city’s worth of surveillance cameras, gets $5 million in next year’s budget.

Hybrid Truck’s Katrina Duty

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

Diesel-electric hybrids vehicles are all the rage at the U.S. Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Michigan. Rising fuel prices and attacks on fuel convoys in Iraq have inspired a number of programs to develop more fuel-efficient trucks. The idea, according to industry, is to cut the Army truck fleet’s fuel consumption by 20 percent by 2010.
HEMTT ARMOR.jpgBut there are other advantages to hybrids, according to Gary Schmiedel at Oshkosh in Wisconsin, which builds the Army’s Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. HEMTTs are tough mothers. During the January elections in Iraq, I talked to HEMTT crews who barreled through AK fire to pick up ballots (see photo for the result). Schmiedel says a new breed of HEMTT, the A3 model, will retain all the ruggedness and combat utility of its predecessor, but with the added capability to export up to 100kW of 3-phase AC power, thanks to its new capacitor-based hybrid engine.
To test the A3, and as a public service, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Oshkosh sent a prototype to New Orleans to serve as a mobile generator. Since it uses the same standard of electricity as our public grid, exporting power is as simple as firing up the HEMTT and plugging in your appliance. The New Orleans-deployed A3 enabled workers to pump out the flooded basement of a hospital.
Hybrids are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. But they promise overall savings over their lifetimes thanks to reduced fuel consumption. And they offer many benefits besides, including those demonstrated by Oshkosh’s HEMTT A3 after Katrina. These days I’m on the hybrid beat for National Defense, so expect more on the subject in coming weeks.
– David Axe