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Archive for June, 2006

Rapid Fire — Weekend Edition

Friday, June 30th, 2006

* Ford: Hybrids? Never mind…
* Electrolux death ray
* Nuke clowns: Keep chasing, ABC
* Raptor export ban over?
* More heavy-breathing over Nork missile
* Pentagon wind farm fight heats up
* Gurkhas in Afghanistan
* AT&T main source for NSA database?
* Bank-tapping: “A Secret the Terrorists Already Knew“
* Gitmo ruling big blow to Bush
* Brazil’s buffalo cops
* Milspace about to be axed?

(Big ups: MG, RC, FT)

Ja! German Bot Spies By Satellite

Friday, June 30th, 2006

Check it out, frauleins: The German Federal Armed Forces are experimenting with a prototype, satellite-controlled robot that can go on recon missions, while its human operator hangs out in Berlin.
satom_on_the_300dpi.jpgThe satellite link, which can transmit video at 2 Mbps and receive control channel data up to 128 Kbps, makes the RoboScout something of an oddball in the unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) world. As Peter J. Brown notes in the latest issue of Via Satellite magazine, satellite signals are easy to lose in the urban canyons and forested areas where UGVs are likely to operate. Plus, the uneven ground can cause the ‘bots to tilt by 20 or 30 degrees in one direction or another — which means locking onto a satellite gets even trickier. Most robot-makers go for radio-control, instead.
RoboScout was one of more than 20 UGVs shown off during May’s European Land-Robot Trial — sort of a Continental answer to Darpa’s Grand Challenge, but without the “‘winners’ and ‘losers,’” the organizers note. The machines were put through a series of obstacles during their time under the Bundeswehr’s care in Hammelburg — “stairs, narrow passes, and collapsed ceilings… as well as ditches, fences and fire.” And from the looks of the couple-thousand pictures taken at the event, RoboScout (and many of the other UGVs) handled themselves rather well. Achtung!

New Twist in Dragon Armor Tale

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

After a few soldiers started wearing Dragon Skin body armor, the much-hyped alternative to the standard Interceptor defenses, the Army banned the flexible armor — and allegedly threatened to cut off the life insurance policies of anyone wearing it. Then, the Army took a different tack, saying it would start testing the Skin, to see if it was up to snuff.
Pinnacle Armor Dragon Skin Test_1.jpgNow, one of the officers in charge of those tests is publicly dissing the Dragon armor, Jane’s Nathan Hodge reports.

In comments posted on an online discussion forum, Karl Masters, director of engineering for Program Manager — Soldier Equipment, said he recently supervised tests of Dragon Skin, a vest made by California-based Pinnacle Armor.
“I was recently tasked by the army to conduct the test of the 30 Dragon Skin SOV 3000 level IV body armor purchased for T&E [tests and evaluation],” Masters wrote in a 6 June posting. “My day job is acting product manager for Interceptor Body Armor. I’m under a gag order until the test results make it up the chain.
“I will, however, offer an enlightened and informed recommendation to anyone considering purchasing an SOV 3000 Dragon Skin — don’t.“
Masters added that he would not recommend the vest, particularly given the threat from 7.62 x 54R armor-piercing rounds.
“I do, however, highly recommend this system for use by insurgents,” he added…
Pinnacle officials have consistently maintained Dragon Skin passed the tests that were conducted in May, and said army officials agreed to continue tests at a later date. They say they are awaiting word from the army on the resumption of testing…
After repeated inquiries, an army public affairs official referred Jane’s to Pinnacle for more information on the results of testing. Lieutenant Colonel William Wiggins, an army spokesman, said the safety of use memorandum regarding Dragon Skin is still in force.
“As our research community comes up with new products, we’ll field them,” Col Wiggins said. “You can be assured that we field the best body armour in the world.”

Rapid Fire 06/29/06

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

buff_nyc.jpg* Buffalos, Cougars take Manhattan
* Supremes: Gitmo trials no-go
* Russia and China get littoral warships, too
* Ultrasound to treat war wounds (background here)
* Raptor goes 108 and 0
* Stealth radar can’t be spotted
* Heart-rending goodbye in Ramadi
* Mmmmmm… astroturf!
* VA employee had take-home OK
* Homeland net: lights on, no one home
* Soldiers’ families get threats
* Cybersecurity czar: crooked?

(Big ups: BB, RM, EH, DID, CP)

Miniature Bomb, Heavyweight Punch

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

You hear a lot of big claims in this industry. So when I read about a 31-inch, 64-pound weapon that’s supposed to have more killing power than a 1,000-pound cluster bomb, I was more than a little skeptical.
After all, a typical cluster bomb distributes over two hundred BLU-97 bomblets over a wide area. Together they produce thirty times as many shrapnel fragments as the 64-pound mini-munition, Textron Systems’ Clean Lightweight Area Weapon. It was hard to see how CLAW could compete.

claw combo.JPG

But it turns out that CLAW can be awfully deadly, in its own right. After ejection, CLAW descends by parachute, and a proximity sensor detonates it sixteen feet above the ground. That means its fragments get dispersed far and wide. In contrast, the BLU-97 only goes off on contact with the ground, which sends a lot of fragments into the dirt instead of into targets. (Check out this video to see what CLAW does to a 16 by 12 foot target.)
The design of the warhead casing helps, too. It’s a steel cylinder scored on the inside, so that it forms diamond or arrowhead shaped fragments, over two thousand of them. A special proprietary technique is used to cut the pattern on the warhead casing, creating fragments which are bullet-sized (about 7 grams/114 grains) and effective over a very wide radius. BLU-97 fragments are much smaller (about 30 grains) and less effective.
The explosive filling of CLAW is PAX-21, which is both more powerful and more stable than previous explosives. The combination of explosion and fragments produces thorough coverage of a circular area over 140 yards across, effective against targets including personnel, soft vehicles, parked aircraft and anti-aircraft sites. Textron Systems have precisely quantified this performance with ground tests, and their claim about its effectiveness looks like a strong one.
CLAWs small size means that strike aircraft could carry it in large numbers, but at present its being marketed as the ideal weapon for killer drones. Even something as large as a Predator drone can only carry two Hellfire missiles. For the same weight you could carry several CLAWs, but it also means that even smaller UAVs could be armed for the first time. The development of this type of miniature munition and even smaller weapons are in the pipeline brings the possibility of large numbers of armed UAVs on the battlefield for the first time.
(CLAW is not effective against heavy armor, but the same GPS-guided Universal Aerial Delivery Dispenser which delivers it can also be loaded with a BLU-108 anti-tank weapon with four target-seeking warheads.)
But perhaps the most impressive thing about CLAW is how much work has gone into making sure it only explodes when its meant to. There is a triple-redundant fuzing system the proximity fuze, a ground contact fuze, and a time delay. If all of these fail, then the battery dissipates within seconds and the munition is inert. Its not just unexploded, but unexplodable.
You could hit the CLAW with a hammer, run over it with a tractor or put it in a fire, and it will not detonate. You could take it apart without any personal risk. The insensitive explosive really is insensitive.
The only way you could make it explode would be to take it to a laboratory, says Richard D. Sterchele, Textrons Business Development Manager for Smart Weapons.
This means that unexploded CLAWs cannot be turned into IEDs. Iraq is awash with weaponry, but in other conflicts like Vietnam guerrillas have used unexploded bombs as a major source of explosives.
More importantly, it does not leave hazardous unexploded bomblets scattered around. The failure rate of BLU-97 is widely quoted at around 6%, so each CBU-103 leaves about a dozen potentially lethal bomblets to be cleared up. It is hard to over-emphasize just how dangerous these are; according to the USMCs Multi-Service Procedures for Operations in UXO Environment:

Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity Studies show 40 percent of the duds on the ground are hazardous and for each encounter with an unexploded submunition there is a 13 percent probability of detonationThus, even though an unexploded submunition is run over, kicked, stepped on, or otherwise disturbed, and did not detonate, it is not safe. Handling the unexploded submunition may eventually result in arming and subsequent detonation.

In one incident in 1991, seven members of the 27th Engineer Battalion were killed during operations to clear a runway at As Salam when a pile of dud BLU-97s exploded.
In the Cold War scenario, where the enemy was an invading Soviet horde, unexploded bomblets may not have been seen as a problem. But in scenarios like Iraq and Afghanistan where US engineers are likely to have to deal with them, the argument for a clean weapon like CLAW is a compelling one.
It remains to be seen whether the Pentagon will take up CLAW, which is a private company initiative. Live CLAW munition tests from operational UAVs are being conducted by the U.S. Air Force and Army over the summer 2006. Its a fraction of the cost of a cluster bombs, but the saving in lives could be much more important. But in the world of defense procurement, unfortunately its not always that simple.
David Hambling

White House NYT Bashers: Hypocrites

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Since 9/11, nobody — and I mean nobody — has done more reporting on the government’s attempts to track terrorists through their data trails than the National Journal’s Shane Harris. (The guy ate Spam and knocked back Tequizas with John Poindexter, for chrissake!) So I couldn’t be more psyched to welcome Shane to the Defense Tech family. This is the first of what I hope will be a long string of posts for the site.
cheney_grimace.jpgBush administration officials have been lining up to condemn The New York Times for revealing a program to track financial transactions as part of the war on terrorism. But if the Times revelation about a program to monitor international exchanges is so damaging, why has the administration been chattering about efforts to monitor domestic transactions for nearly five years?
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, many journalists including this one were briefed by U.S. Customs officials on Operation Green Quest, an effort to roll up terrorist financiers by monitoring, among other things, “suspicious” bank transfers and ancient money lending programs favored by people of Middle Eastern descent.
I interviewed Marcy Forman, director of Green Quest, at her Washington offices in December 2001, when I was a writer for Government Executive magazine. Our meeting was sanctioned by Customs’ public affairs office, and came at a time when the White House was eager to talk about all the work federal agencies were doing to hunt down terrorists. Forman told me the kinds of people, transactions, even locations that the government was targeting. (These are details, it should be noted, that the recent Times piece did not reveal.) Among the potentially sensitive items Forman told me, which were published:

Operation Green Quest is focusing on the informal, largely paperless form of money exchange known as hawala, which is Arabic for to change.
Few undercover agents can penetrate Middle Eastern communities and money laundering rings because they look like outsiders and don’t speak the language. As a result, Green Quest has to be more clever, by setting traps on the Internet and working to flush currency traffickers out of their hiding places.
Treasury and FBI investigators have identified hawala as a means by which the alleged Sept. 11 terrorists may have received money from overseas.
Green Quest investigators, who’ve spent their careers dismantling money laundering rackets, were blindsided by the existence of the system. Most of us couldn’t spell hawala before Sept. 11, Forman said.
The agencies’ [involved in Green Quest] cooperative efforts have recently culminated in raids of alleged money laundering operations that aid suspected terrorist networks.
Green Quest also wants to lower the threshold at which bank deposits and electronic funds transfers must be documented. Dropping the ceiling from $10,000 to $750, Forman said, may force money traffickers to try to get their cash out of the country by hand. They would then be subject to capture by a beefed-up cadre of Customs Service officers at border crossings, airports and seaports.

Green Quest was only one of the administrations efforts to combat terrorist financing which officials discussed publicly. More than two years after 9/11, federal officials testified before a congressional field hearing in Miami and “detailed efforts to stop the illegal financing of terrorist networks.” A senior adviser for the Treasury Department “named several initiatives, such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which is developing technology to let financial institutions report suspicious transactions more easily and quickly.” The adviser also named the system FinCEN was developing to manage a database built to search financial transactions. And he said the department was working directly with financial institutions to help them “develop software to better identify potential terrorist-financing activities.“
These details, provided by Customs and Treasury officials, undoubtedly gave terrorists some insight into how the U.S. government was tracking them, and what investigators knew about terrorism financing. These officials werent whistleblowersthey were sanctioned by the administration to dispense this information.
In the wake of the latest Times revelation, Rep. Peter King of New York, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants the attorney general to investigate and prosecute reporters and editors of the Times for aiding the cause of our enemies. What King and others critics havent addressed is how the publication of specific details, over the past half decade, about the techniques the government employees to track terrorists money doesnt also aid their cause.
Shane Harris
UPDATE 06/29/9:34 AM: Intel Dump takes a very different point of view. Meanwhile, Bob Kerrey — and even, to some extent, Peter King — wonder the Times’ disclosure actually helps counterterror efforts.

Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 commission, [said] that if the news reports drive terrorists out of the banking system, that could actually help the counterterrorism cause.
“If we tell people who are potential criminals that we have a lot of police on the beat, that’s a substantial deterrent,” said Mr. Kerrey, now president of New School University. If terrorists decide it is too risky to move money through official channels, “that’s very good, because it’s much, much harder to move money in other ways,” Mr. Kerrey said.
A State Department official, Anthony Wayne, made a parallel point in 2004 before Congress. “As we’ve made it more difficult for them to use the banking system,” Mr. Wayne said, “they’ve been shifting to other less reliable and more cumbersome methods, such as cash couriers…“
Since [9/11], the Treasury Department has produced dozens of news releases and public reports detailing its efforts. Though officials appear never to have mentioned the Swift program, they have repeatedly described their cooperation with financial networks to identify accounts held by people and organizations linked to terrorism…
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, convened a hearing in 2004 where Treasury officials described at length their efforts, assisted by financial institutions, to trace terrorists’ money. But he has been among the most vehement critics of the disclosures about the Swift program, saying editors and reporters of
The New York Times should be imprisoned for publishing government secrets.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. King said he saw no contradiction. “Obviously we wanted the terrorists to know we were trying to track them,” Mr. King said. “But we didn’t want them to know the details.”

Rapid Fire 06/28/06 (Updated)

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

* ACLU: stop brain scanning terrorists
* How to tell if the NSA snoops on you
* Bullets, password-protected
* ONR’s million-dollar contest
* Israel’s Gaza strike — and what lead up to it
* Inside China’s space command center
* Super Hornets’ sweet new radar
* Freezing Falcons
* America’s own cyanide IED
* NYT’s finance scoop: old news, no biggie
* Beating China’s great firewall
* eBay = homeland security answer?
* U.S. chips compromised?
* Renewable energy: crowds?
* Starfire redux
(background here)
* Switchblade redux
(background here)

(Big ups: EH, Schneier)

Robo-Doggie’s New Pal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Defense Tech loves robots, of course. But our favorite of ‘bot of all is the four-legged mechanical pack mules known as the BigDog. We’ve been barking about the robo-fido, ever since it was a sketch on a drawing pad.
bigdogs2.jpgSo imagine the joy at Defense Tech HQ when we learned that there was a new puppy in the mechanical litter — a second BigDog. The two bots were running around Marine Corps Air Station New River recently — along with an exoskeleton-clad marine and a new trauma pod.
The roboteers at Boston Dynamics have been training the 165-pound, two-and-a-half foot-tall BigDogs to carry gear for soldiers and marines over uneven terrain. So far, they’ve gotten the pooches to “run at a rate of 3.3 mph, climb a 35 degree slope and carry a 120 pound load,” according to Marine Corps News. The bots have proved sturdy enough to take a big kick, and keep on walkin’.
Maybe it’s this sturdiness that’s inspiring some to think about the BigDogs are most than just mechanical beasts of burden. This article — and take this a can of salty Alpo — says Darpa “is considering plans such as weaponizing the BigDog robots.“
Down, boy. Down.
(Big ups: BB)

Hoax Watch, Day 10: No Nork Launch, After All

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Ten days ago, the New York Times and its sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, ran a pair of breathless stories, warning us that North Korea’s long-range Taepodong-2 missile was being fueled for “take off.” Worse, the weapon could have the ability to “deliver chemical, biological or perhaps nuclear warheads to targets as far away as the continental United States.“
taepodong.jpgWorldwide hysteria followed. Condi Rice called it a “provocative act.” The Japanese prime minister said they would “respond harshly” to a launch. The Pentagon shouted that its missile defense system was ready to go. A former SecDef and a former VP called for preemptive strikes on North Korea.
But cracks in the story appeared almost immediately. No one could really say what this Taepodong-2 really looked like, or what it could do. Responsible reporters recalled North Korea’s history of saber-rattling stunts — and its anemic track record for testing missiles.
And then there was the fuel and oxidizer supposedly being loaded into the missile. Corrosive stuff, it could eat through a missile’s metal casing in two or three days. Which meant that the Norks had to launch quickly, or not at all. With every day this missile “crisis” dragged on, the less likely it became.
By the beginning of this week, it became clear that a world-class hoax had gone down. Either Pyongyang had hoodwinked the globe into thinking it was about to launch — or the Times was once again hyping up a national security threat.
Today, finally, the Times admitted the obvious. Well, kinda sorta. And on page A9 — not the font page, where the Taepodong “scoop” had been originally published.

On Monday and Tuesday, two officials said the intelligence could, at best, be interpreted as offering only a prudent assumption that the missile was fueled, and that intelligence analysts had described an already fueled missile as a worst-case scenario.
“It is impossible to know for certain whether or how much fuel is moving between a closed container through a closed line to another closed container,” one official said.
Citing intelligence gathered by “overhead systems” photographing the missile, Senator Warner said, “We are not certain if it’s fueled.”

(Big ups: TP)

UPDATE 07/06/06 12:11 PM
: Well, so much for hoaxes! See here for coverage of the Nork’s actual launch.

JSF Delays Vex Marines

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

The Marines put all their tacair eggs in one basket when they decided, in the early 1990s, to pass up the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and wait for a vertical take-off plane instead. That plane turned out to be the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, and the Marines have committed to buying as many as 500 to replace around the same number of single– and two-seat F/A-18 legacy Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and EA-6B Prowlers — necking down to one tactical airframe and saving loads of cash in the process.
Sounds great, right?
The problem is that the F-35 initial operational capability keeps sliding right thanks to weight, software and engine problems. It’s unlikely the Marines will be able to field a squadron before 2012, several years later than originally planned. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Marines are flying the life out of all their airplanes, putting as many hours on a deployed jet in just seven months as they would in two years back in the States.
usmc jet.jpgBy the time the JSF enters Marine Corps service in large numbers, the service’s jets will be around 25 years old on average. That’s old for a naval jet. But when you talk about aircraft age, there’s calendar age and then there’s fatigue age. What with all the hard use in hot, sandy Iraq and on the Navy’s carriers (to alleviate Navy force cuts, the Marines contribute several Hornet squadrons to carrier air wings), the Marines jets “feel” a lot older than they actually are.
The result is premature retirement for dozens of tired jets, mostly Hornets. As the fleet shrinks without a hot production line to replace losses, the only way the Marines can keep its squadrons fully equipped is to decommission a few squadrons and redistribute their jets. Which is exactly what will happen in March 2007, when the Corps shutters VMFA(AW)-332 and VMFA-134 flying the F/A-18D and F/A-18A+, respectively.
I embedded with 332 in Iraq this year, reporting on the great work they were doing supporting the ground troops in restive Al Anbar province. 332 is a fine unit with one of the best safety records in the entire Marine Corps, having last crashed a jet around 30 years ago. It’ll be a shame to see them go.
On the other hand, these force structure cuts themselves don’t actually reduce the number of jets in Corps service. They just consolidate the existing jets into fewer, larger units that can fly and maintain the planes more efficiently. This is making lemonade out of lemons from trees planted a decade ago when the Corps pinned all its tacair hopes on a paper airplane that is only now taking shape, years late.
Here’s to hoping the F-35 pans out. If it doesn’t, the Air Force can buy new F-16s and F-15s from production lines sustained by foreign sales and the Navy can boost its Super Hornet order (as has already been rumored), but the Marines are screwed. As long as nobody at HQMC is interested in the Super Hornet, there’s no contingency plan.
Pay 332 a tribute by checking out some of their Iraq snapshots at Flickr.
–David Axe