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Archive for November, 2006

Get Your News On

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

I almost always forget to announce it. But I’ve got a weekly-ish, insiders-only, e-mail newsletter, to give folks a first look at articles I’m writing, and let ‘em know about updates to the site. If you dig Defense Tech, I’d strongly recommend you sign up here.

Look Out Below!

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Sikorsky cuts quality control inspectors from 70 to 8. Chopper rotor blades start “depart[ing] the aircraft.” The POGO Blog has details.

Rapid Fire 11/30/06

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

* 9/11 caused cancer?
* PS3 super-computer
* Nike + iPod = surveillance
* Army’s golf ball scam
* $77.5 M more for aerostats
* Atomic license plate
* “Democratic Bomb,” blown
* Sailors win right to hook-up online
* Chertoff admits screwing NYC
* Only one terror suspect caught by US-VISIT
* Dems break key 9/11 pledge
* Ex-NSA chief: Iraq war supporters “traitors,” “full of shit”

(Big ups: VR, RC, EM)

Spy Poison Everywhere! (But Don’t Sweat it)

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Fears about spy-slaying polonium-210 are reaching fever pitch, with traces of the radioactive poison discovered at 12 different locations. But, as MSNBC’s ace science reporter Alan Boyle informs us, the stuff is “actually not so rare to find it in everyday life.“

In minute quantities, polonium-210 has been used over the years to spark up spark plugs and banish static cling. Polonium is one of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke, and you can buy a smidgen of it over the Internet at $69 a pop… Heck, there’s even radioactive polonium in plain old dirt.
“It’s present in all of us, in trace amounts — say, in nanocuries,” said Keith Eckerman, a senior research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The amount is key. We might notice no ill results from billionths of a curie (which serves as a measure of radioactive intensity). In contrast, Litvinenko is thought to have been exposed to something around 5 millicuries (thousandths of a curie)…
That’s a minute amount — a speck of polonium that active would weigh less than a millionth of a gram, according to the Health Physics Society’s information sheet on polonium. But getting that much polonium together would probably require going to the source, which usually involves a nuclear reactor. This is why investigators are thinking the hit on Litvinenko was a high-level spy-vs.-spy job.
The amounts used in industrial applications — yes, including those $69 polonium samples, which are typically used to calibrate radiation detection devices — are far more minute: a speck of a speck of a speck.

Baker Group Wants Troop Pullback (Updated)

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Wow. Big news from the Baker commission:

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus on Wednesday on a final report that will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, according to people familiar with the panels deliberations.
The report, unanimously approved by the 10-member panel, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, is to be delivered to President Bush next week. It is a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March, avoiding a specific timetable, which has been opposed by Mr. Bush, but making it clear that the American troop commitment should not be open-ended. The recommendations of the group, formed at the request of members of Congress, are nonbinding.
A person who participated in the commissions debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki believed that Mr. Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached.
The report recommends that Mr. Bush make it clear that he intends to start the withdrawal relatively soon, and people familiar with the debate over the final language said the implicit message was that the process should begin sometime next year.
The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries. (A brigade typically consists of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.) From those bases, they would still be responsible for protecting a substantial number of American troops who would remain in Iraq, including 70,000 or more American trainers, logistics experts and members of a rapid reaction force.

So how will the President react?

“I know there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,” the president said during a joint news conference with Mr. Maliki, referring to the panel’s reports that are expected next week. “We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there.”

So what’s the right move? Speak up!
UPDATE 4:29 PM: Feeling in the slightest bit upbeat? Like there’s a shred of hope for good in the world? John Robb should take care of that. His forecast for Iraq:

The US will find itself forced to remain in Iraq indefinitely, despite an inability to achieve any meaningful victory conditions. The reason for this is simple. Iraq is a core producer of oil for global markets. Control of this oil cannot be ceded to either the guerrillas or Iran under any meaningful interpretation of US policy. Further, a full US withdrawal would put Saudi Arabia at risk — the collapse of both of these oil producers in tandem would plunge the global economy into a depression. As a result, the US will stay. The most likely result is that the US will reconfigure its remaining forces to play the role of the “strongest faction” in Iraq.
This new role is the inevitable result of the US withdrawal from pacification operations (particularly in Anbar), the evaporation of funding for reconstruction (Bechtel’s departure from Iraq marked the end of the effort), and the failure of the effort to rebuild the Iraqi military (due to a deficit of loyalty to the government). As the strongest faction in Iraq, the US will adopt the strategy of a spoiler. This means that we will remain in Iraq to prevent (through the decisive application of force) any Iraqi faction (that is antagonistic to the US) or Iran from gaining control of Iraq and its oil. The US presence will also attempt to prevent the spread of the conflict to Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to see how this role evolves over the next few decades, particularly as the conflict (despite US efforts, or worse, due to the inadvertent consequences of US efforts) spreads to Saudi Arabia. At that point, the entire strategy deck will be reshuffled (almost certainly for the worse, from the US perspective).

UPDATE 5:42 PM: Check out Fred Kaplan’s take, too.

It’s hard to justify keeping even 50,000 American troops in Iraqeven if they’re just sitting thereunless they have a mission. The mission might serve as an adjunct to a broader political initiative.
If Iraq falls apart, the bordering states will be tempted to rush into the vacuum, partly for their own security, partly for aggrandizement. If they do, their forces may brush up against one another (Iraq’s internal sectarian borders are far from distinct). The United States could serve as a mediator to keep this from happening. To play this role, it helps to have troops on the ground and planes in the air.
This may be the only real purpose of a U.S. military presence in Iraq at this pointto keep the country and the region from erupting into flames.

Bots, Grunts, Choppers Team up for Air Assaults

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

41800_11281826b.jpgThe Army’s 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade has put together a pretty unusual cast to hunt Iraqi insurgents: chopper pilots, sensor analysts, foot soldiers, Navy bomb techs… and three-foot tall robots.
The forms a kind of rapid reaction force in the sky, Stars & Stripes reports. They call the missions “Lightning Strikes.”

Commanders and ground troops have long complained that efforts to capture insurgents on the ground are often stymied by the noise and visibility of their vehicles. Helicopter pilots have also complained that they have observed suspicious activities from the air, but have been unable to summon ground troops quickly enough to investigate.
The Lightning Strike missions are aimed at solving both those problems. The 25th Infantry Divisions Combat Aviation Brigade staged its first such mission in Iraq this week when it launched a team of Kiowa and Black Hawk helicopters containing a number of foot soldiers, ordnance technicians and a bomb disposal robot…
The missions differ from traditional air assaults or raids in that they are not flying to a specific target. Instead, the aircraft go out in search of suspicious activity in an area that hasnt seen a heavy coalition presence.
At the same time, the team is essentially on call to respond to situations observed by other units in other areas. Commanders give the example of tracking down and stopping a vehicle that was seen fleeing a bombing or an attack…
The mission was part of a larger, ongoing operation in northern Iraq dubbed Snake Hunter. The operation involves the creative use of military aircraft in the fight against roadside bombs, and is aimed at intercepting insurgents before they fully arm and conceal the explosives.
If an [improvised explosive device] has already blown up, then the initiative is already with the enemy, Tate said. Were trying to work left of the boom. We want to interdict before the [bomb] blows up.

Army units have been dropping from the sky with 100-pound, three-feet-high, bomb-fighting Talon ‘bots for more than a year. But only on select missions. During attack raids, similar to these “Lightning Strikes,” “we left the robots in the garage,” one air assault veteran tells Defense Tech. But that was then.

Rapid Fire 11/29/06

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006


* Three words: rocket launcher bong
* “Kimstock 2007″
* No iPods for Norks
* IEDs’ secret sauce
* Los Alamos flops another security test
* Bush-Maliki confab cancelled
* War chewing up $2B worth of gear, every month
* Ancient computer, super-smart
* Chem-bio bowling
* How our foes get our tech
* Secrecy News vs. NBC
* Carter’s 10 Iraq commandments
* Tons of armor pics
* UK grand challenge online…
* …Brits’ helmet-cam footage, too

(Big ups: GK, RC, ACE)

Recon Planes vs. I.E.D.s

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Since the Iraq insurgency began, the U.S. Air Force has been looking for ways to use its planes to fight roadside bombs. Electronic warriors like the EC-130H Compass Call jam frequencies used to set off explosives. Drones patrol highways, looking for new, suspicious mounds along the road. Sometimes they even take out the bomb-planters.
Inside Defense
reveals another Air Force tactic: Using ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) aircraft “to help coalition units round up insurgent cells believed to manufacture lethal improvised explosive devices.”

Military officials — working backward using surveillance video — were able to successfully trace IED placers moves using targeting pods and ISR aircraft like the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), Lt. Col. Clint Hinote said during a Nov. 21 telephone interview…
[T]he Air Force has used its surveillance assets to find insurgent IED makers, as opposed to solely working to find or disarm the deadly devices, Hinote said…
You can have a security camera in the sky, he said. We actually have aircraft that have that capability of just taking shots of whats going on.
After IEDs detonate in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, Air Force ISR officials begin marking tapes of radar sweeps in an attempt to pinpoint the explosion, he said. They then essentially rewind the tapes, trying to discover any movements in the specific area prior to the blast.
Maybe you can find the car that was involved and backtrack it to a certain house, Hinote said. Weve got several ISR assets that right now are working on this backtracking plan.
Thats actually led to a couple of good successes where weve rounded up some IED cells, he added.
The ultimate goal is to track the IED maker to a bomb-making equipment storage location — and then even further back, Hinote said.

Net Smuggling Ring Exposed

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Over the last few weeks, the Philadelphia Inquirer has been slowly spooling out one of the most interesting, most ambitious journalistic undertakings of the year: an 8-part series — complete with a ton of online extras — on an Internet drug-smuggling ring, importing illegal pharmaceuticals into this country from India. Here’s a snippet from the first installment. But, when you’ve got some time, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Whenever DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden grew nervous, he would rub his forehead with his left hand. Now, as the arrest briefing began, Breeden dug deep into his brow.
Tomorrow’s worldwide takedown of the Bansal network was to be monitored from this drab conference room overlooking Independence Mall.
The network supplied a rainbow of pills — painkillers, sleep aids, sedatives, stimulants, steroids, psychotropics, erectile-dysfunction medication. Thousands of orders a day.
Who knew who made this stuff, where it came from, what was in it? The public health risk that Internet drugs posed, Breeden thought, was incalculable.
Yet no one in DEA had ever worked a major global online pharmacy investigation. He knew it was a career case, one colleagues would always link to his name. Breeden? Yeah, he’s the guy who supervised the Internet pill case out of Philly.
To take down the network, agents were using a number of weapons — surveillance, undercover buys, cell-tower pings, trash pulls, e-mail wiretaps, bank subpoenas, immigration reports, even provisions of the Patriot Act. Agents here had flown to Australia, Costa Rica and India.
As Breeden listened to the arrest briefing, he thought about everything that could go wrong.
Would foreign banks and governments cooperate? Or would they protect the targets, allowing Akhil and others to flee with millions? Would magistrates in several states authorize search warrants in time? Would the bad guys be there when agents raided their homes at dawn? Had any of them gotten wind of the premature arrest in New York? Did Akhil, as he implied in e-mails, really have a mole inside U.S. Customs?
Had they overlooked anything?

UFO Nut Sells Spy Poison Online (Updated)

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

“The radioactive material that killed a former Russian spy in Britain can be bought on the Internet for $69,” Information Week is reporting.
FF_192_chem1_f.jpgPolonium-210, which experts say is many times more deadly than cyanide, can be bought legally through United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, a mail-order company that sells through the Web, based in Sandia Park, N.M. Chemcial companies sell the Polonium-210 legally for industrial use, such as removing static electricity from machinery. United Nuclear claims that it’s “currently the only legal Alpha source available without a license.“
The type of Polonium-210 sold emits alpha radiation, which can’t penetrate the skin, but is deadly if swallowed, depending on the amount ingested. The Polonium available on United Nuclear’s site can be purchased without a license because the level of radioactivity, 0.1 microcurie, does not pose a danger, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.
“At that level, it’s exempt from licenses,” NRC spokesman David McIntyre said. “At any exempt quantity, it’s not considered a health hazard.“
Such small amounts of Polonium could be used to calibrate devices used to detect radiation, McIntyre said. If used for that purpose, the material would remain in its sealed container, and never actually handled.
United Nuclear is run by Bob Lazar, who, some 20 years ago, claimed to have worked on alien spaceships on a secret military base in Nevada…
[That’d be Area 51 –ed.]
In April, United Nuclear was ordered by the Department of Justice to stop selling chemicals that it claimed could be used to make explosives, the
Albuquerque Journal reported. At the time, Lazar said he was fighting the legal challenge.
On the site, United Nuclear says it will not sell anything illegal, including explosives or the materials to make explosives. “Because our products can be potentially hazardous in the wrong hands, we will occasionally terminate and refund orders, if we feel you are a juvenile posing as an adult, inexperienced with the materials ordered, or using our products to make any sort of explosive device,” the company says.

Wired ran a story about Lazar and other science salesmen a few months back. Somehow, the Area 51 stuff never made it into the piece.
(Big ups: RC)
UPDATE 11:50 AM: Be sure to check out Arms Control Wonk’s take on the polonium poison mystery.
UPDATE 1:55 PM: “Authorities grounded three British Airways jetliners in London and Moscow on Wednesday and drew up plans to contact thousands of airplane passengers as they broadened their investigation into the radiation poisoning death of a former Russian spy,” the AP says. “Two planes at London’s Heathrow Airport tested positive for traces of radiation, a third plane has been taken out of service in Moscow awaiting examination.”