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Archive for January, 2007

Rapid Fire 01/31/07 (Updated)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

* AQ big offed in Madagascar
* Gonzales turning over domestic spy docs?
* Vid: Sea Launch explosion
* Tehran behind G.I. kidnapping?
* …Roggio had the story last week
* More Iranian bombs in Iraq (background)
* “Rogue U.S. attack on Brit convoy?“
* Big corruption in Iraqi police training
* Sadr’s rope-a-dope
* Congress slams Los Alamos…
* …Deepwater cutters up next (background)
* Cold-case cops turn to YouTube
* Plea deal in MySpace murder
* 1672 “folding camera” comes to life
* Inside Putin’s jet

(Big ups: BB, DG, RC, EM, Hambling)

Starving Iran’s Tomcats

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

The U.S. government has stepped in to halt the auctioning of spare parts for the Northrop Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, Defense News reports:


The sales of all F-14 parts were suspended on January 26 pending a review, the Defense Logistics Agency said in a statement. Dawn Dearden, a spokewoman for the agency, told AFP the sales were frozen given the current situation in Iran. Iran bought 79 F-14s from the United States before the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The move comes amid growing U.S.-Iranian tensions over Tehrans disputed nuclear program and what Washington sees as Iranian subversion of U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

Not to mention Iranian agents have been fingered in the recent Iraq commando raid that killed five U.S. troops, according to The New York Times:

Investigators say they believe that attackers who used American-style uniforms and weapons to infiltrate a secure compound and kill five American soldiers in Karbala on Jan. 20 may have been trained and financed by Iranian agents, according to American and Iraqi officials knowledgeable about the inquiry.

With a confrontation looming, the U.S. is trying to strangle the Iranian air force in advance of a bombing campaign. As I reported last year at Defense Tech, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force has managed to maintain or even increase its combat power despite embargoes:

All told, the IRIAF flies as many as 300 fighters. All are older designs, but have been maintained and, in many cases, upgraded by the indigenous aerospace industry, which has become proficient in reverse-engineering weapons and spare parts — and perhaps even engines. And the IRIAF has aerial tankers too — a force multiplier only the most advanced air forces maintain.

Iran’s air defense network would be a tough nut to crack, even with our F-22 fighters and aircraft carriers. We could do it, of course, but probably not without loss. But then what?

And don’t forget: there is still no direct evidence of state-sanctioned Iranian meddling in Iraq. If there is, our government hasn’t entrusted us with it.

David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring

DT’s Biggest Hits, Best Posts of January

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

January has been a hell of a month for Defense Tech: traffic is through the roof, reader participation is way up, and the quality of material is at an all-time high. So here are the top five most popular posts for the month.

The Law Catches Up To Private Militaries, Embeds
Since the start of the Iraq war, tens of thousands of heavily-armed military contractors have been roaming the country — without any law, or any court to control them. That may be about to change, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow P.W. Singer notes in a Defense Tech exclusive.
Navy’s Deadly New Darts
David Hambling reveals a fearsome piece of hardware: a modified satellite-guided bomb, releasing thousands of darts, each carrying a payload of a powerful chemical called DETA.
Electric Lasers Shoot Mortars, Gain Strength
Real-life laser weapons continue to inch closer to reality. Two recent examples: Raytheon says its “prototype solid-state Laser Area Defense System successfully detonated 60-millimeter mortars.” And Northrop Grumman is opening up a new “directed energy production facility” for building high energy, solid-state lasers.
Second Nork Nuke Test Coming?
I was skeptical when I heard the news that “senior defense officials” now think North Korea has “put everything in place to conduct a [second nuclear] test without any notice or warning.” But the wonks over at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies are warning us: believe the hype.
China Space Attack: Unstoppable
China has shown it can destroy a satellite in orbit. What could the U.S. do to stop Beijing, if it decided to attack an American orbiter next? Short answer: nothing.

And here, in no particular order, are ten posts that didn’t get quite as many clicks, but really show off the best of the work being done at Defense Tech HQ:

“Non-Lethal” Viruses to “Neutralize” Cities
Inside a Cold War plan to develop “biological agents” — including ones that can lead to “inflammation of the brain, coma and death” — for “incapacitating” enemies on the battlefield or “neutralizing hostile cities.“
Cop Tech Key to Iraq Fight?
All the talk is about more U.S. troops. But if there’s going to be a shot in hell of winning the war in Iraq, it’ll be up to the Iraqi police. And those cops will need to be equipped with the latest crime-fighting gear.
Mr. Plow Eagerly Awaits Nuclear War
Step off, Al Gore! Eric Hundman has found a quick fix to global warming. All we need is a handful of nuclear weapons.
Behind the Ethiopian Blitz
David Axe examines how Ethiopia’s tiny air force, which just four years ago was in danger of implosion, spearheaded the effort to drive Islamist militias out of southern Somalia.
Real Iraq Surge: Electronic Attack?
Any U.S. military surge in Iraq will be far more than a troop increase. It’ll include a slew of new technologies to interrupt and infiltrate insurgent networks.
Iran’s Super Missile Will Defeat Great Satan, Steal Your Girlfriend
Robot Economist looks at the Iranian claims, paroted by the U.S. press, that Tehran has a radar-evading, multiple-warhead rocket.
New Army Camos: No Place to Hide?
The Army’s new uniform was supposed to blend into every environment — from deserts to jungles to cityscapes. Has it lived up to the promise?
Merc Chopper Shot Down
Blackwater should’ve seen it coming, that one of their copters in Iraq was bound to get blown out of the sky. David Axe explains.
Behind China’s Sat-Killer Test
Six posts, covering everything you wanted to know about Beijing’s strike against a satellite, more than 500 miles up.

200 Years of “Mind Control“
Countless thousands of people complain today about the government taking over their minds. But the problem goes way back — to 1810, David Hambling explains. And not all of the claims are completely crazy.

Cat & Mouse in Cyberspace

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Interesting news on the infowar front, in two parts. First, Declan McCullagh has stumbled onto a previously-undisclosed FBI Net-monitoring program that’s “broader and potentially more intrusive than the FBI’s [infamous] Carnivore surveillance system.“

Instead of recording only what a particular suspect is doing, agents conducting investigations appear to be assembling the activities of thousands of Internet users at a time into massive databases, according to current and former officials. That database can subsequently be queried for names, e-mail addresses or keywords…
Call it the vacuum-cleaner approach. It’s employed when police have obtained a court order and an Internet service provider can’t “isolate the particular person or IP address” because of technical constraints, says Paul Ohm, a former trial attorney at the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section…
That kind of full-pipe surveillance can record all Internet traffic, including Web browsing–or, optionally, only certain subsets such as all e-mail messages flowing through the network. Interception typically takes place inside an Internet provider’s network at the junction point of a router or network switch.

Top data-miners and social network analysts have questioned whether this kind of broad-brush surveillance works at all. And while we’re all getting caught in the FBI’s electronic dragnet, the real bad guys are getting smarter about hiding their tracks. The Middle East Media Research Institute notes:

The Global Islamic Media Front [recently] announced the imminent release of new computer software called “Mujahideen Secrets.. [allegedly] the first Islamic computer program for secure exchange [of information] on the Internet,” and it provides users with “the five best encryption algorithms, and with symmetrical encryption keys (256 bit), asymmetrical encryption keys (2048 bit) and data compression [tools].”

The package “is comparable to any number of commercial products available here in the United States,” says ZDNet blogger Mitch Ratcliffe. “The difference is an Islamist skin, which seems more a gimmick to inspire confidence in the software than a guarantee it will be effective.“
But “‘Mujahedin Secrets’ is the latest example of the growing technical competence of online supporters of al-Qaida and other Islamic terror networks, but encryption capabilities are not new in the world of cyber-jihadis,” IntelCenter’s Ben Venzke tells UPI.

“This is consistent with the ongoing efforts of jihadist sympathizers online… Encryption is used by some (Islamic terrorists)” and some al-Qaida manuals have addressed the question.
He said encryption is “a standard part of the operational security practiced (online) by those (Islamic terrorists) who take the time to use it.

Armor Lack Behind Copter Crashes?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Three American helicopters have gone down in Iraq in a little more than a week. Is there anything behind this collection of crashes? Or is just lethal coincidence — part of what happens when troops do something death-defying, over and over again? I asked Defense Tech pal ME, a former Kiowa Warrior pilot who served in Iraq, to weigh in with his thoughts.
copter_ME1.jpgI haven’t heard of any reason as to why we’re losing more lately, but we also haven’t lost any in a long time prior to this — I think it’s reflective of somewhat of the odds catching up to us and an increased combat operations tempo.
[That said], I would point out that US helicopters aren’t that heavily armored. [Something David Axe noted about last week’s Blackwater copter crash — ed.] They have blocks of armor protecting some key parts of the engine, and crew compartments, but it’s not nearly comprehensive. Most don’t have flare systems, and their only active countermeasure against IR missiles is an ALQ-144 jammer. Relatively speaking, there is very little protection from direct small arms hits.
In my opinion, our greatest threat was from small arms and RPGs while operating at low altitude and low airspeed. My troop was under standing orders not to fly above 500 feet AGL (above ground level) or under 60 knots — and never hover unless absolutely necessary. At low altitude — we felt that it was key to minimize the time available to acquire us as a target. We used the ALQ’s but at the time I was there, we didn’t see much threat from SAMs [surface-to-air missiles]. Towards the fall of 2003 we did start getting more reports of SAM engagements — spiral smoke trails arcing up, rather than lob shots from RPGs, but in our flight regime, AK’s and RPGs were the biggest threat.
The Kiowa Warrior… has very little armor [see the pics]. The Blackhawk is similar, and the Apache has relatively more. A friend of mine who was a troop commander in the (in)famous deep strike to kick off OIF said the only positive from that mission was that they learned that the Apache could soak up a lot of small arms fire and keep flying. When you look at the armor though, it’s easy to see how a few small arms rounds in the wrong place can bring a bird down.
There are some other issues with the ALQ-144. Some of them are classified. Some are mundane: they’re difficult to keep operational in the desert, and must be cleaned to be effective. They also must be turned off and on as part of a landing checklist (see my next point). The Blackwater birds don’t appear to have them at all. If there are new supplies of SAMS coming in, they may be much more effective than RPGs and AKs.
Complacency kills, especially in an environment as unforgiving as Iraq is. With high temps and flying at high gross weights, there is little performance margin. Combat maneuvers take power, and familiarity (read boredom) take their toll, even on experienced pilots. After a few months, I could fly from Baghdad to Al Asad without a map, and knew every neighborhood in between — and it made me too casual at times, about mission prep and procedures. As pilots go back for repeat tours, they may fall into that even more quickly.

“Since May 2003, the U.S. military has lost 54 helicopters in Iraq, about half of them to hostile fire,” according to the AP.

You’re Fired!

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Navy chief Admiral Mike Mullen has fired the captain overseeing the Littoral Combat Ship program, Defense News reports:


Capt. Donald Babcock, the Navys LCS program manager, was relieved of his duties Jan. 29 by his boss, Rear Adm. Charles Hamilton who also is being reassigned. Hamilton relieved Babcock due to loss of confidence in his ability to command, according to a Navy source, who added that Babcock would be reassigned to administrative duties.

Both men got their pink slips after an audit revealed that the Lockheed Martin version of the LCS would come in at around $400 million, nearly double the target cost. Two weeks ago the Navy suspended work on the second LockMart LCS for 90 days, long enough to get new managers in place and, hopefully, put the fear of God in Lockheed Martin.

With 55 ships planned, the LCS is a lynchpin of the Navy’s future fleet. The class is designed to work close to shore at high speeds and to carry “modular” weapons and sensors packets to enable it to swing between missions. The idea was to populate coastal waters with large numbers of LCSs anchored by a Zumwalt-class land-attack destroyer. But that concept is in jeopardy if the Navy can’t keep down costs on both ships. Already the first Zumwalt is careening towards a $3-billion pricetag. Toss in cost overruns on the LCS and the Navy’s future surface fleet is dead in the water.

Far from being discouraged, naval analyst Bob Work sees the pink slips and the work stoppage as positive signs. “The Navy needed to say it had a problem. The second thing they had to say was that we have to build affordable ships. Mullen has shown that he is dead serious about doing that.”

David Axe, cross-posted at Ares and War Is Boring

Unearthing the Dead, and Finding Solace

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Most of you probably know Xeni Jardin for her fun, flirty postings on the Boing Boing uberblog. But beneath the beneath the glam exterior is one bad-ass reporter.
fafg.jpgTake the epic, five-part, multimedia series Xeni has put together for NPR, after spending a month in dirt-poor, war-ravaged Guatemala. “An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, and another 100,000 ‘disappeared,’” she writes, to introduce the first installment. “Many survivors are still searching for the remains of their loved ones.”

One group of forensic anthropologists is using technology to help the country come to terms with its past. For 12 years, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) has been exhuming clandestine graves that hold victims killed in political massacres.
Most of the people killed in Guatemala’s 36-year civil war were indigenous. The army’s scorched-earth policy sometimes leveled entire villages.
In traditional Mayan culture, the dead and the living are believed to be in constant communication. For many thousands of Mayan people in Guatemala, however, their dead have never been able to rest. Neither have the relatives they left behind.
Now, archaeologists and anthropologists with the FAFG work to identify the human remains, record evidence for possible trials, and return the dead home for reburial.

You can listen to the audio for part one of the series here or here. And be sure to check out Xeni’s narrated tour of the FAFG’s facility here.

Micro Drones’ Killer Intent

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

My recent piece on Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) in Wired News> traces a familiar pattern in the evolution of air warfare. When balloons were invented they were first used for observation, then for bombing. The first fragile biplanes flying over the trenches in WWI were unarmed, but within a few years they carrying machine guns and bombs. Unmanned Air Vehicles like Predator were flying reconnaissance for years before they were armed for strike missions.
(UAV pedants note: the V-1 doesnt count as it was only ever one-way)
WASP.jpgSo its not surprising that British SAS troopers should decide that rather than just spying on Taliban with their WASP micro air vehicles, they should be able to take them out. Sticking a small C4 charge on these toy-sized craft is a relatively crude approach, but one that should effectively convert them from silent spies to stealth assassins. And at $3,000 a time they are by no means the most expensive weapon around.
But, as the article explains, the US Air Force has much more ambitious plans for arming MAVs to take out installations, vehicles and people. They might initially be used individually like the SASs WASPs, but the obvious approach is to release swarms of them as I have previously described networked robots forming an efficient single unit.
One area I did not have space for was the use of incendiaries, which can be far more effective than explosive pound-for-pound. This is real fire-ant warfare.
A single insect-sized MAV carrying a few milliliters of napalm would be a dangerous nuisance, especially indoors or inside a vehicle. Several dozen of them would be lethal, especially when they can locate stored fuel or ammunition. Just program them to look for those distinctive danger inflammable signs
Similarly, thermite could give tiny robots a disproportionate destructive capability. A mixture of powdered metal and metal oxide, it burns at very high temperature (up to over 2,500 degrees centigrade), enough to turn most metals to liquid. It can burn through metal; in WWII, thermite charges were used as a quick way of disabling artillery. It would not take too much thermite to make an artillery barrel hazardous to use; and surface-to-air missile batteries are an obvious target.
One armed MAV, or termite with thermite, would not be too much of a menace, but dozens or hundreds could be effective, against even large installations. The small size of the warhead is offset by the extreme precision with which it can be placed by the sort of flying/crawling robot insect which the Air Force has in mind.
This should help put the earlier report on swarming robot cockroaches intended to attack underground installations into perspective. Such weapons are too indiscriminate to be used in an urban environment, but in an enemy bunker, everything is fair game. Stamp on one and the thermite will burn through your shoes and keep going…
Individual cockroaches can burn through grilles or other obstacles, making a way for the rest of the swarm. With their collective intelligence they can identify the complexes vulnerable points, and by combining together, they can destroy most things. When the lights in your bunker start to go out and the air fills with the smoke of burning insulation, how long would you hang around?
– David Hambling

Darpa Takes $300 Million Hit

Monday, January 29th, 2007

You’d think that the Defense Department’s higher-ups would be happy, when their research agencies start demanding results from the scientists and engineers that they fund. Not necessarily. Inside Defense reports that the Pentagon’s comptrollers have slashed Darpa’s budget by $300 million — about 10% — for the next fiscal year. Another $200 million is supposed to come off the top, the year after that. The reason: “A project management oversight structure introduced in DARPA… mandat[ing] that projects are reviewed at regular execution intervals to ensure that they are meeting defined program goals and objectives.“
The switch “has resulted in more effective linking of resources to outcomes,” according to “Program Budget Decision 704,” an internal Defense Department document obtained by Inside Defense. Which would be a good thing, ordinarily. Except that Darpa hasn’t been spending the money it’s been given, apparently. While funding for the agency has gone up, up, up since 9/11, the number of program managers hasn’t increased as fast. Combined with the new, results-driven process, that “has slowed execution of DARPAs funding.… resulting in a significant decline in obligations and expenditures,” says PBD 704. So what happened to all that excess cash? I haven’t been able to get a straight answer, yet.
The subtext to all this wrangling is the leadership of Darpa chief Tony Tether. In the military research world, he’s known as a hands-on manager — a very, very hands-on manager. No item in his $3 billion budget is too small; even some of the names of Darpa research efforts require his approval. “Nothing happens without his say-so,” one Darpa-funded researcher tells me.
That’s a change for the agency, which has traditionally let its program managers — and its researchers — more or less follow their imaginations. Some current and former Darpa types mumble that the quality of research has been undermined, as a result; after all, “Darpa-hard” problems can take longer than six months to solve. But with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are sucking up more and more money, Defense research budgets are tightening up; demanding results doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. We’ll see how this one shakes out.
While PDB 704 takes from Darpa, it adds $300 million to the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. That’s the widely-criticized effort to build new nukes — a construction effort many sage observers thinks is completely unneeded.

T.M.I., Robo-Dude

Monday, January 29th, 2007

That’s “too much information,” for those of you over the age of fourteen. These days, information superiority is supposed to make U.S. military forces faster, smarter and more lethal and able to defeat more numerous foes on their own turf. But how much information can one soldier process, and how fast can he make decisions?


Unmanned vehicles sporting sophisticated sensors are key suppliers of new and more voluminous streams of info to grunts on the ground. But in addition to potentially overwhelming customers with too much information, robots require regular input from their human masters.

That’s a key problem facing the engineers responsible for developing the Army’s human-robot interfaces. At the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in suburban Detroit, Gregory Hudas and his colleagues are trying to figure out what robots should be allowed to do on their own, and what they should ask permission for. The key factors are what human operators are comfortable with, and what they’re capable of. “We must be aware of when they [soldiers] get overloaded.”

To work out this problem, the folks at TARDEC have linked up two consoles representing the controls of a Future Combat Systems fighting vehicle. Each console boasts three tall touch-screen displays. At the center in front of a padded seat, there is a control stick similar to what you might see on an arcade game. The consoles include a simulation function, akin to a video game, that the TARDEC engineers use for tests.

On one screen, a TARDEC engineer representing an FCS crewman brings up an overhead map of the battlefield dotted with icons representing his vehicle and four robots that he’s controlling. One is a Fire Scout aerial drone. The others are ground drones equipped with cameras and guns. On his other screens, the crewman can see what his robots are seeing in addition to what’s outside his own vehicle. It’s a massive amount of data for one man to process, and things are sure to get worse when he decides to send his drones on a reconnaissance mission, potentially forcing him to also coordinate the movements of five vehicles simultaneously while facing an elusive enemy on unfamiliar terrain.

Which is why the Army decided that each FCS vehicle would include two identical consoles. Side-by-side crewmen would share responsibility for all the functions described above. The Army believed that by coordinating their efforts, one two-man crew should be able to control 10 drones and keep up with all their data feeds.

But that’s too many robots, Hudas says. Four drones is the realistic max. And a third crewman at an additional console is ideal. And that’s assuming a minimal level of human intervention in the drones activities. Basically, you tell a drone what to do, confirm the command, then let it go. Now, if the drone wants to kill something, it’s going to need a soldier’s permission. But for surveillance and reconnaissance, it can make its own decisions. “With those applications,” Hudas says, “we don’t even want a soldier.”

Thanks to TARDEC and other research organizations, the Army is making enormous strides in combining thinking men and thinking machines into one cohesive fighting force. That’s the subject of a feature slated for our March issue. Stay tuned.

David Axe, cross-posted at Ares and War Is Boring