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Archive for December, 2006

Saddam Dead; Footage Everywhere (Updated)

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

As I’m sure you all know by now, Saddam Hussein has been hanged to death — executed for his role in the slaughter of 148 in the Shi’ite town of Dujail.
hussein_hanging.jpgIraqis, according to the Times, “spent much of the day crowding around television sets to watch mesmerizing replays of a videotape that showed the 69-year-old Mr. Hussein being led to the gallows at dawn by five masked executioners, and having a noose fashioned from a thick rope of yellow hemp lowered around his neck.“
But, as Xeni notes in an excellent round-up of the execution coverage, “explicit images of Hussein’s corpse and ‘unedited’ cellphone video of the hanging (which includes the moment of death) have already shown up online,” on Google Video.
The video is grotesque. But “I think there’s a public interest in making this available for adults who choose to see it, non-passively,” Xeni tells Defense Tech. I agree.
UPDATE 9:26 PM: Defense Tech pal Michael Hastings has himself a scoop, interviewing Ali Al Massedy, who “was 3 feet away from Saddam Hussein when he died. The 38 year old, normally Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s official videographer, was the man responsible for filming the late dictator’s execution at dawn on Saturday.“
UPDATE 10:24 PM: Eric Umansky has “the most telling part of the execution.” Let’s just say Moqtada Al-Sadr is psyched.
UPDATE 12/31/06 11:49 AM: “We are seeing 21st century psychological operations,” says TPM Cafe. “It can be concluded there were elements within America’s government and/or military, working in concert with Iraq’s current scarecrow power-holders, who wanted as many people as possible in the world to see Saddam hang.” I’m not sure I buy this. And I can’t get with screeching tone. But it’s an interesting notion, nonetheless.
UPDATE 12/31/06 11:56 AM: Juan Cole gets into the execution’s religious dynamics.

The tribunal also had a unique sense of timing when choosing the day for Saddam’s hanging. It was a slap in the face to Sunni Arabs. This weekend marks Eid al-Adha, the Holy Day of Sacrifice, on which Muslims commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God. Shiites celebrate it Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday — and Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as the act of a Shiite government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.
The timing also allowed Saddam, in his farewell address to Iraq, to pose as a sacrifice for his nation, an explicit reference to Eid al-Adha. The tribunal had given the old secular nationalist the chance to use religious language to play on the sympathies of the whole Iraqi public.
The political ineptitude of the tribunal, from start to finish, was astonishing. The United States and its Iraqi allies basically gave Saddam a platform on which to make himself a martyr to Iraqi unity and independence — even if by unity and independence Saddam was really appealing to Sunnis’ nostalgia for their days of hegemony.

(Big ups: Josh)

Pain Beam Not Easily Foiled

Friday, December 29th, 2006

My recent pieces on the Active Denial System (ADS) or pain beam sparks discussions here and elsewhere on the web. One of the most common challenges to the device is that the beam of short-wavelength microwaves could easily be blocked with tinfoil.
Its not that easy.
Captain Jay Delarosa, spokesman for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate told me:

“We have conducted extensive testing and have determined that most readily available materials are not effective as countermeasures against the ADS.

Few people appreciate the reasons behind this, and even John Pikes otherwise excellent GlobalSecurity site claims:

Countermeasures against the weapon could be quite straightforward for example covering up the body with thick clothes or carrying a metallic sheet or even a trash can lid as a shield or reflector.

foil2.JPG
As described previously, the beam is at least two meters in diameter, and the smallest skin exposure is enough to cause intolerable pain. A red hot poker does not need to be in touch with much skin to make you pull away, and the ADS causes as much pain on your nerve endings. A shield will not work unless it covers your whole body and them some, because the ADS beam diffracts. According to an article in Aviation Week & Space Technology last July -

actual tests show that the beams penetrate even minute openings or cracks, for example, and sometimes appear almost to wrap around corners to affect fingers and feet of those trying to hide behind or hold up protective devices.
“The radio frequency is hard to block,” Booen says. “Some of the people tested against tried to hide by laying down behind some concrete traffic barriers and the beam went underneath [where there was uneven contact with the ground].”

What about that tinfoil? It will have to cover every square inch and any rips or tears will make it useless. Joints may be tricky; if you flex foil too many times holes start appearing. For vision you will need a metal mesh visor, like the kind they use on microwave oven doors. The problem is, the size of the mesh depends on the wavelength of the radiation - so short-wavelength ADS beam requires something much finer than normal microwave mesh. You also need to think about the effect on your breathing, body temperature and communication.
While it is theoretically possible to put together an anti-ADS armor suit, this is less of a spur-of-the-moment improvised undertaking and more of an elaborate workshop project taking some time and effort. (And by the same token, you could make yourself bullet-proof if you used quarter-inch steel plate instead of foil.)
Get your suit working and your problems are just beginning, as it will quickly identify you as a troublemaker rather than an innocent bystander. Separating tourists from terrorists is one of the ADSs main goals, and as Capt Delarosa says:

If an individual makes extensive efforts to counter the effect of a non-lethal system, then they are likely showing hostile intent and an escalation of force may be warranted based on existing rules of engagement.

The Marines will always ensure that non-lethals have lethal backup. Marine Corps Colonel Wade Hall is blunt about the use of ADS in a convoy protection scenario:

“If they try and deflect beams then we will kill them because we know what their intentions are”

There is another alternative. The Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP), which I described in New Scientist (subscribers only) is a non-lethal weapon which fires an extremely short laser pulse, producing a plasma flash-bang at the target. This could be deployed on the same platform as the ADS, using the same power source. Many of the countermeasures that can be envisioned against the ADS could be nullified by the PEP by ablation of the defence according to a Navy study on the effects of plasmas. Such a laser could chew through a layer of foil with a few pulses.
A PEP might also negate foil without having to blast it away. Ultra-short pulses have recently been demonstrated that can turn metals pitch black , so that the surface absorbs incoming radiation and reflective foil is made useless. This technology was developed at Rochester’s High Intensity Femtosecond Laser Laboratory ; they are funded by (among others) DARPA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Well be looking more at short pulse lasers in 2007.
There are many questions still remaining around the Active Denial System and its effects. But we may safely assume that in the many years of its development the Air Force has taken possible countermeasures into account.
UPDATE 5TH JAN Some interesting responses in the Comments section.
Leather is no protection; wet leather, like any other wet material, will absorb the beam and heat up. This may sound like a good idea, until you look at the numbers and realise that it only gives you a few seconds extra, then you have extremely hot water/steam in contact with your skin…foil is a better idea. The issues around damp/wet cloth, sweat etc were investigated a few years back in FWR-2002–0016-H Effects of skin and environmental conditions on sensations evoked by MMW covered this). There was some concern about one subject wearing a sweater developing nettle rash (urticaria) which is mentioned in F-BR-2006–0018-H Effects of exposure to 400-W 95-GHz Millimetre Wave Energy on Non-stationary Humans , but this did not happen again.
To clarify one concern, as I understand it running away would not make you a target for escalated force (like getting shot at); turning up in a tinfoil bodysuit might do.
And as for Nicholas Weaver’s request “Could you get zapped by it and tell us first hand?” — er, no thanks. It sounds painful. There’s a good firsthand account by Eric Adams in Popular Science here:

“About a half-second after ‘One,’ I felt a warm spot on my back. A millisecond later the heat intensified dramatically, as though someone were pressing an electric burner hard on my back. I expected to hear sizzling, to smell burning flesh. The pain exploded to the point where I was no longer actually thinking, and certainly wasn’t in any sort of control of my reactions. With a shout of “Yeow!” I involuntarily sprang out of the way.”

David Hambling

Noah’s 50 Favorite Posts of 2006

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

Enough with the popularity contest. Here are my picks — in more-or-less chronological order — for the 50 best Defense Tech posts of 2006.

“Q Branch’s” Stock Market Shenanigans

Killer robots, cheeky Brits, cute marine mammals, shady government officials, insider trading — plus, a gratuitous reference to James Bond — all in one post.
Laser Weapons “Almost Ready?” Not!
If youre into military technology at all, somewhere in the back of your mind, you want laser guns to happen. That doesn’t mean they will.
The Dead Bombers of Halabja
David Axe finds the machines behind Iraq’s gas attacks.
Kneel Before the Centaur
Like a lot of us, former Navy electrician Dennis Buller is worried about our troops over in Iraq. But he’s actually built a machine to do something about it.
China Tops Iraq, Osama in QDR
How the Pentagon’s every-four-years master plan focuses more on a future fight with China than today’s wars.
The Best Weapon
David Axe attends a tanker’s memorial service in Iraq.
Real-Life Ray Gun: Say When?
I was skeptical, when I first heard about the idea of using lasers and man-made lightning to detonate explosives at a distance. Now, a little less so.
Happy Birthday to Me
Momma always told me to look on the bright side.
Be Mickey Mouse’s Spy
Here’s your big chance, junior spooks: the Walt Disney Company needs an ““Intelligence Analyst.“
The Enemy is Me
Last summer, a U.S. Colonel in Baghdad told me that I was America’s enemy, or very close to it.
Mini-Sensors for “Military Omniscience“
The Pentagon’s new way to spot insurgents: a set of palm-sized, networked sensors that can be scattered around a war zone. Its part of a larger Defense Department effort to establish military omniscience and ubiquitous monitoring.
Stealth’s Radioactive Secret
Theres a simple technology that could transform civil aviation — slashing fuel consumption, reducing greenhouse emissions and cutting noise. The problem, David Hambling explains, is it’s a military secret.
New Detectors Sniff Terrorists’ Scents
The Pentagon’s fringe science arm wants to keep track of potential enemies-of-the-state in every way imaginable: not just by sight, or by sound, or by their e-mail; but by their smell, as well.

Laser Labs Go Back to the Future
George Neil and Bob Yamamoto don’t remember exactly where they were when they found out that the Pentagon was canceling their laser cannon project. But they remember how they felt.
Air Force One Scare; Real Security Sacrificed
The headline sure seemed scary: “Web site exposes Air Force One defenses,” Steven Schwartz notes. Too bad the article didn’t mention that the site is a firefighter safety manual, to help rescue passengers.
Federal Bureau of Luddites
Why the FBI is still using tech that’s straight out of the leisure suit era.
Iran’s Kooky, Incendiary Arsenal
Super-fast underwater missiles ain’t the half of it. Iran’s armed forces are rolling out a slew of new military hardware.
China’s R&D: Don’t Freak
China is about to pass the U.S. in the development of defense and commercial technology, Matthew Tompkins warns. And they’re gonna take our lunch money, too.
Terrorists’ Unmanned Air Force
The bad guys can use drones, too.
Sunny, With a 75% Chance of Air Superiority
Some Air Force weapons simulators act like our biggest enemies just don’t exist. Haninah Levine explains.
Giant Slingshot: New Way to Space?
All space projects get into orbit pretty much the same way by burning lots of rocket fuel. But what if, David Hambling asks, we could throw something so hard, it would wind up in space?
NSA Sweep “Waste of Time,” Analyst Says
It’d be one thing if the NSA’s massive sweep of our phone records was actually helping catch terrorists. But a leading data analyst says that “it’s a waste of time… let[ting] the real terrorists run free.“
The Tech That Took Out Zarqawi
Ten years ago, taking out Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi with F-16s would have been an impossible task. Not any more, David Axe reports.
Enter the BomBot
One of the nice things about being editor of Defense Tech is that people occasionally show up at your apartment with military robots.
Superbomb — or Crapshoot?
A panel convenes, to assess the not-quite-dead controversy over a phantom superbomb. Sharon Weinberger wonders why she wasn’t invited.
Clowns Sabotage Nuke Missile
On Tuesday morning, a retired Catholic priest and two veterans put on clown suits, busted into a nuclear missile launch facility, and began beating the silo cover with hammers, in an attempt to take the Minuteman III missile off-line. Seriously.
Taking on Iran’s Air Force
What happens a stand-off with Iran turns violent?
Missile Flop: Norks in Tight Spot
Is North Korea’s busted missile test as a major problem for the U.S. — or for Kim Jong-il?
Semper Fi Sauvignon
From the halls of Montezuma to Fallujah, the United States Marine Corps have proved themselves to be the most resourceful warriors on the planet. Now, a single test remains: Make a rich, smooth red wine.
CIA’s Wacky, Online ‘Personality Quiz’
These are tough times for the CIA. But can things have grown so dire at Langley that the it has to resort to gimmicks like a wink-wink-trying-to-be-ironic-and-cool– but-instead-looking-even-more-dorky recruiting website?
Hez Hacked Israeli Radios?
Readers debate whether Hezbollah really compromised Israel’s most secret communications.
“Plug-and-Play” Ship Hits the Water
Why Navy Captain Don Babcock is in such a hurry.
Attack Of The Genius Robot Cockroach Swarm
“I have seen some radical ideas for attacking deep bunkers,” David Hambling says, “but this beats ‘em all.“
Area 51: Hype vs. Reality
A veteran aviation journo writes about secret airplanes he believes might be under development at Area 51. David Axe wonders how much proof he has.
Robotic Frisbees of Death
The Air Force thinks it has an answer to the most vexing problem in counter-insurgency: frisbees. Not just any frisbees, mind you. Robotic frisbees. Heavily armed robotic frisbees.
How to Rate a (Possibly) Stupid Weapon Idea
Sharon Weinberger’s 15-point test to find out if a weapons-maker is full of it.
Iraqi Forces Don’t Suck … Entirely
Despite what you might have heard from other media, David Axe says, the Iraqi Army does not suck.
High-Tech Uniforms Finally Heading to War
A collection of high-tech soldier gear, 15 years and half a billion dollars in the making, will finally make it into battle.
Army “Big Brother” Unit Targets Bloggers
Bloggers: “Big Brother is not watching you, but 10 members of a Virginia National Guard unit might be.“
Spyboys Go Web 2.0
How the military keeps tabs on overseas TV channels, 24/7 — and what it means for the future of intelligence.
Cash-Poor Army Pays Big to Pimp Pricey ‘Future’
The Army is quickly going broke, its leaders insist. But there’s one Army account that the generals are still managing to keep packed to the brim: marketing.
Bush: Space is for Soldiers
Theresa Hitchens explores the President’s new space plan — and finds a martial bent.
Big War Machines Pushed for Korea Fight
How military bigwigs are angling for North Korean fight.
NORK Nuclear Test: It’s A Dud
Jeffrey Lewis is the first to figure out that Kim Il Jung’s nuclear test isn’t all it was cracked up to be.
BattleHog Drone’s Story Stinks
David Hambling asks: Could a home security consultant operating out of a Manhattan apartment have built the latest and greatest killer drone?
“The Deadlies“
Defense Tech’s search for the most insanely hazardous gear, ever.
Mechanical Mole Men, Attack!
Throughout the ages, bad guys have loved bunkers. Which is why the Air Force wants teams of tunneling, foot-long “subterranean vehicles.“
Labouchere of Arabia
David Axe camps out with a modern-day T.E. Lawrence.
<a href=“http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002950.html>Tomorrow’s Insta-Weapons
America owes a big chunk of its military superiority to what it can make. So what happens, Nicholas Weaver asks, when much of that high-precision manufacturing can be located anywhere and owned by anyone?
Drunks, Butts Test Pain Ray; Paris Hilton Next?
David Hambling’s new reality-show pitch. Milimeter wave weapons are involved.
Pentagon Plan: Hit Anywhere on Earth, in an Hour
The secret connection between Nordstrom’s toddlers department and the Pentagon push to “strike virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth within 60 minutes.”

So Where Are All The Dirty Bombs?

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

I’ve never been one to fully understand the great fear that many state and federal emergency response managers seem to have over dirty bombs, given the many training exercises that seem to include the threat as the main hazard. This USA Today article talks about the issue of loose and stolen radioactive material.
radioactive.jpg

Annual incidents of trafficking and mishandling of nuclear and other radioactive material reported to U.S. intelligence officials have more than doubled since the early 1990s, says the director of domestic nuclear detection at the Department of Homeland Security.
Also up: scams in which fake or non-existent nuclear or radioactive material is offered for sale, often online, says Vayl Oxford, nuclear detection director at the department.
“We sense that people have recognized the value of nuclear material as a useful way of making money,” Oxford said. “Nuclear material is becoming a marketable commodity.“
The incidents tracked by the department, based on its reporting and information from foreign diplomatic and intelligence sources, average about twice the number made public each year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Oxford said reports of nuclear and radioactive materials trafficking have ranged from 200 to 250 a year since 2000, up from about 100 a year in the 1990s.

But here’s the thing ‚Vayl. When you look at the amount of materials stolen or lost (some data are shown in the article’s sidebar), we’re talking about ounces and a few pounds at best of gamma emitters. No one’s tracking the alpha/beta radioactive material out there (polonium anyone?). Still, not exactly enough for an improvised nuclear weapon, maybe enough to scare unknowledgable people.
You might have seen the last season’s “Sleeper Cell” that only reinforced some of these fears. I enjoyed watching the terrorist cell use americium 241 to “test” their lead-lined cooler container for radiation leaks (except that americium isn’t a strong gamma emitter), talk about how exploding an aircraft holding one nuclear fuel rod over Los Angeles would “cover the city in nuclear fallout” (ah, not really), and how the authorities “got a hit from the radioactive sniffers” on the lead-lined cooler on its way to the last target. Yeah, it’s only a drama, but I’ll bet people believe this stuff. Maybe it was just disinformation for the real terrorists… yeah, that’s the ticket.
Jason Sigger, crossposted at Armchair Generalist
UPDATE 12/29/06 11:36 AM: David Hambling writes in to say: “Also, the UK police are ordering some 12,000 CBR [chemical-biological-radiological] suits — looks like they’re expecting those famous/mythical dirty bombs too.“
UPDATE 12/29/06 12:05 PM: J here. Great conversation in the comments, especially the cool-headed plugger noting that “dirty bombs” are hazards, not life-threatening events. Many of the comments seem to go to the question of “what’s your point?” Without getting too academic (hey, I’m not the ArmsControlWonk, after all), my point is simply this. While there’s lots of radioactive hazards out there, the really bad ones aren’t being moved in great quantities to cause a mass casualty incident. Given that “dirty bombs” of whatever flavor — alpha, beta, gamma — are largely more of a clean-up job, and while costly to clean up, government goes on. The anthrax letters didn’t shut down the USPS, but it did slow things down on the east coast. The polonium poisoning didn’t shut down Heathrow Airport for a minute.
They’re hazards, they are low-probability events, they’re not mass casualty events. Given that basis, what’s the appropriate federal response? I suggest that it is not to put rad detectors in every port and every border crossing into the United States and within every major metropolitan area, as DHS’s DNDO has suggested (which would cost billions of dollars to implement plus annual sustainment and training costs). The appropriate response is to lock down the bad rads (cesium, uranium, and plutonium), get the terrorists before they attack, and be prepared (like our UK brethern) to clean it up if it happens. Simple. Smart. Efficient. But not the course of action being implemented by the government.

Rapid Fire 12/27/06

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

* ‘Invisible electronics’ coming?
* 70 year-old plane still flies
* Semtex, knives smuggled onto planes
* Nuke trafficking doubles
* Pak agents assault NYT ace
* Ethiopia 1, Islamists 0
* Tires = snitches
* GD, Force Protection team up
* Fed agencies move out of DC blast zone
* How quick could Japan go nuke?
* Guide to your neighborhood meth lab
*
Daily Show does homeland tech
* Gauss pistol
* Mindball!
“Man convicted of stealing Teddy Roosevelt’s gun“
* Duhhhhhh
* RIP, President Ford

(Big ups: BP, RS, HLS Watch)

Rapid Fire 12/26/06

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

* Dems don’t spook defense contractors
* Tons of nuke missile tests
* Hot Hornet vid
* Meet the Swiss Jet Man
* “Rosetta phone“
* Scooter of doom
* Nanotech armor
* Ultrasonic mine fighter
* Noonan’s close call
* Roggio vs. Muj TV
* Defense Dep’t bans HTML e-mail
* U.S. blocks Israel arms sales?
* Sea-Based Radar to set sail? (background here)
* Goodbye, Godfather

(Big ups: AE, RC, KR, MO)

Bump: Def Tech’s 20 Biggest Posts of 2006

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Out of the hundreds and hundreds of technologies, tactics, and political maneuvers Defense Tech highlighted, here are the twenty you guys clicked on the most in 2006. Thanks for another great year, everyone.
silo-E8-gate_smaller.jpg1) Clowns Sabotage Nuke Missile
On Tuesday morning, a retired Catholic priest and two veterans put on clown suits, busted into a nuclear missile launch facility, and began beating the silo cover with hammers, in an attempt to take the Minuteman III missile off-line. Seriously.

2) Look Out, Pyongyang? Rail Gun in the Works
One of the big selling points of the Navy’s new destroyer is that it can rain a whole lot of hell — 20 rocket-propelled artillery shells, in less than a minute — on targets up to 63 nautical miles away… But really, that’s the start. The ship’s real power will come when it moves away from chemical powders to shoot its projectiles — and starts relying on electromagnetic fields to shoot projectiles almost six kilometers/second, instead.
3) SEAL Ship: Silent But Deadly
Every shipbuilder in the Navy these days talks about how his hulking destroyer or Cold War sub is now going to sneak SEALs onto shore… Military​.com overlord Chris Michel was down in San Diego, and saw a pretty cool new prototype ship that’s been designed from scratch to handle the mission.
4) Air Force Plan: Hack Your Nervous System
The brain has always been a battlefield. New weapons might be able to hack directly into your nerve cells and neural pathways.
5) Marines Quiet About Brutal New Weapon
War is hell. But its worse when the Marines bring out their new urban combat weapon, the SMAW-NE. Which may be why theyre not talking about it, much.
6) Urban Combat Skateboard!
skateboard_dt_small.jpg

7) Replacement Arm, Good as New
Thought-controlled robotic limbs were only the beginning. 8) Robotic Frisbees of Death
It ain’t easy, picking out evil-doers in the urban canyons of the Middle East; there are so many places to hide. Taking ‘em out can be even harder, what with all those noncombatants hanging nearby. But the Air Force thinks it might have an answer to this most vexing problem in counter-insurgency: frisbees. Not just any frisbees, mind you. Robotic frisbees. Heavily armed robotic frisbees.
9) David and the Inflatable Goliath
Inside the Darpa project to build a humongous blimp that can haul 500‑1000 tons’ worth of soldiers and gear halfway across the world in less than a week.
10) Falcon Fills Blackbird’s Shoes
A decade after the final retirement of Lockheed Martin’s Mach-3 SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the Air Force is preparing to test a plane that flies more than three times as fast. Two Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicles, built by Lockheed Martin with input from NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), will take to the air in 2008. The $100-million program aims to field a Mach-10 unmanned aircraft that can spy on foreign powers, drop bombs or even lob satellites into orbit.
11) Giant Slingshot: New Way to Space?
All space projects get into orbit pretty much the same way by burning lots of rocket fuel, a spaceship powers itself past the sky. But what if there was a different approach? What if we could throw something so hard, it would wind up in space?
FAST G16_small.jpg12) Facial Armor Rears Its Ugly Head
No matter how many times soldiers and marines say they’re not interested, there’s always someone trying to wrap them up in heavier, hotter, more uncomfortable armor. The latest culprit: MTek Weapon Systems, which is pushing Stormtrooper-esque “facial armor” for our troops.
13) Air Force’s Secret Drone Program Revealed
A new, $1.7 billion, “Penetrating High Altitude Endurance” drone is thought to be able to cruise at 70,000–80,000 ft,soaring high above defended territory.
14) CIA’s Wacky, Online ‘Personality Quiz’
These are tough times for the Central Intelligence Agency. But can things have grown so dire at Langley that the CIA has to resort to gimmicks like this wink-wink-trying-to-be-ironic-and-cool-but-instead-looking-even-more-dorky recruiting website?
15) Pain Ray, Sonic Blaster, Laser Dazzler — All in One
For a while, now, I’ve been hearing about the Defense Department’s plans to outfit a fighting vehicle with a pain ray, a sonic blaster, and a laser dazzler, too. I never figured they’d actually send the thing to Iraq, though. Project Sheriff, I assumed, would just be the military equivalent of a concept car — a chance to see if some whiz-bang gear really worked together. But the Pentagon may wind up deploying this straight-outta-sci-fi jalopy, after all.
16) Battle Ball for Sailor Training
Check out the Navy’s nine-foot plastic ball. It sits on wheels, enabling unlimited rotation in any direction — making virtual reality feel a whole lot more real.
starfire-optical-range-laser3_small.jpg17) Chinese Laser vs. U.S. Sats?
Was it just China Hawks’ hype? Or did Beijing really blind U.S. satellites by firing high-powered lasers at ‘em? And what does that mean for the future of America’s eyes and ears in the sky?
18) The Tech That Took Out Zarqawi
Ten years ago, taking out Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi with F-16s would have been an impossible task. Not any more.
19) ‘Invisible’ Boomerang ‘Bot
It’s nice to have a set of robotic eyes in the sky. But surveillance drones tend to be loud, and rather obvious, as they keep watch above a Middle Eastern city. That’s why a small company out of Minneapolis, VeraTech Areo, has built a hand-held spy drone that it says is practically invisible.
20) Area 51: Hype vs. Reality
A veteran aviation journo writes about secret airplanes he believes might be under development at the Air Force’s remote Groom Lake test facility in Nevada, a.k.a. Area 51. How much proof does he have?
(Big ups: Slate, and their surprising top ten stories of the year. And, and a note to Long Tailers: two of these posts were actually from ’05.)

Missile Radar Still Adrift

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

CBS News took a peek last night at our favorite giant golf ball, er, missile defense radar.
SBX.jpgWith documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight the CBS News Investigative Unit found a host of issues with the Sea-Based X-Band Radar SBX for short that still remain unresolved, just ahead of its activation in the waters off Adak Island, Alaska.
– Beyond questions raised in our CBS Evening News story about plans to stick it in some of the most unforgiving weather in the world, if the SBX has a single point of failure, according to sources within Missile Defense, it is The Dove. The Dove is the large support vessel, 279 feet long, which travels with the SBX, delivers personnel, supplies and fuel to the radar platform. Though the SBX has a helicopter platform, military and Coast Guard helicopters wont land there. So the SBX uses a single crane to lift people and material off the Dove. According to the Coast Guard letter obtained by CBS News, there are regularly waves as high as 30 feet many days out of the year. There are concerns that the Dove will not be able to maneuver close enough to the SBX to re-supply without colliding or injuring crew men in those conditions.
Other potential problems include:
–Fuel spills: the Dove carries 600,000 gallons of diesel fuel and the SBX carries 1.2 million gallons. If both vessels spilled their fuel in the pristine waters off Adak Island, it would be the second largest fuel spill in Alaskan history. Second only to the Exxon Valdez. How likely is a fuel spill? According to incident reports obtained by the Investigative Unit, the Dove spilled 3–5 gallons of diesel during fueling operations on December 9th. It happened near Hawaii and the system was shut down when crewmembers saw a growing oil slick. Thats not a lot of fuel by Exxon Valdez standards but the spill occurred in ocean conditions with 12-foot swells, relatively calm compared to conditions in the Bering Sea.
–Security: As a source within the Missile Defense Agency said, Trying to defend a billion dollar asset with rifles, shotguns and 50 cals is ridiculous. The SBX will be protected around the clock by about a dozen lightly armed security contractors. Can the SBX defend itself from a direct attack by a bomb-laden boat?

Pentagon Plan: Hit Anywhere on Earth, in an Hour

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

I’ve had sources ask to meet me in some pretty odd places. But there was one meeting last year that had to be just about the strangest request yet. It wasn’t just that this very-recently retired Defense Department strategist wanted to meet at the Pentagon City Mall — that’s a pretty common place to grab an off-the-record cup o’ joe. It was where in the mall he had in mind: at the Nordstrom’s coffee shop, tucked all the way in the far reaches of the store, just past the little kid’s clothes section.
0107global_main.jpg So I walk past the rows of toddlers’ jumpers, past the blue-haired ladies ordering around their grandkids. I sit down with my source. And he begins to tell me about a Pentagon plan that’s even odder that the place where we’re meeting.
Here’s the goal, as another source — U.S. Strategic Command’s deputy commander, Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler — later told me on-the-record: “strike virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth within 60 minutes.“
Sounds… ummm, ambitious, right? So how do you pull off that kind of mission, now known as “Prompt Global Strike?” Well, that’s the subject of my cover story in this month’s Popular Mechanics.
Now, of course, the American military has weapons that can destroy just about anything on the planet in a matter of minutes: nuclear missiles. Which might have been the right answer for containing our Soviet adversaries. But as the Cold War receded into memory, U.S. strategists began to worry that our nuclear threat was no longer credible. That we were too muscle-bound for our own good. Were we really prepared to wipe out Tehran in retribution for a single terrorist attack? Kill millions of Chinese for invading Taiwan? Of course not. The weaker our enemies grew, the less ominous our arsenal became. Military theorists called it “self-deterrence.” “In today’s environment, we’ve got zeros and ones. You can decide to engage with nuclear weapons, or not,” Navy Capt. Terry Benedict told me. “The nation’s leadership needs an intermediate step to take the action required, without crossing to the one.“
Benedict’s option — one of two I explore in the article — is Trident ballistic missiles, armed with conventional warheads instead of nukes. For lots of good reasons (like the better-than-average chance the missiles could start World War III) Congress has negged the idea. But, in the military establishment, there’s still a great deal of interest in using ballistic missiles for the hour-or-less mission. How exactly the nuclear holocaust issue is supposed to be resolved is, at this point, unclear.
Which brings us to option #2. It’s a long-term play. And a long-shot, too. The military’s research divisions are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into exotic, high-speed weapons like the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile, illustrated on the cover. If it works out as planned, the X-51 will go Mach 5 (roughly 3600 mph) — much, much faster than any equivalent in the U.S. arsenal. Some Pentagon planners see the X-51 as part of a suite of futuristic weapons that can almost-instantly threaten American adversaries everywhere, without threatening the entire planet in the process. But it’s way off in the distance; the X-51’s first test flight isn’t until 2008. I’m expecting several more trips to Nordstrom’s Cafe before then.
UPDATE 11:40 AM: If you want to learn how the Prompt Global Strike concept got started — and how it’s being put into early development, today — I strongly recommend this chronology, from the Federation of American Scientists’ Hans Kristensen.

Flood of Secret Docs Coming

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Score one for the good guys. In a shockingly sane move, the Bush Administration — widely considered to be the most secretive in recent history — is going to let hundreds of millions of once-classified documents enter into the public sphere.
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Secret documents 25 years old or older will lose their classified status without so much as the stroke of a pen, unless agencies have sought exemptions on the ground that the material remains secret…
And every year from now on, millions of additional documents will be automatically declassified as they reach the 25-year limit, reversing the traditional practice of releasing just what scholars request…
Gearing up to review aging records to meet the deadline, agencies have declassified more than one billion pages, shedding light on the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the network of Soviet agents in the American government.

Earlier this year, the Administration was scrambling to make secret again already declassified papers, like the CIA’s 1948 plan to drop leaflets behind the Iron Curtain. Good for them for having the sense to switch course.