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From the monthly archives:

November 2010

Days after releasing a massive trove of U.S. diplomatic cables, ever-embattled WikiLeaks says it has come under serious cyber attack.

Apparently the site came under a massive distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack this morning, shutting down the site to users in the U.S. and Europe.

According to the AP:

The site, which distributed a trove of U.S. diplomatic documents on Sunday, said in a Twitter message on Tuesday morning that it was under a “distributed denial of service attack,” a method commonly used by hackers to slow down or bring down sites. WikiLeaks didn’t identify the attackers.

The site, which is devoted to releasing anonymously submitted documents, also came under attack Sunday, but Tuesday’s attack appeared to be more powerful.

Apparently the site – nomally hosted on Swedish company Banhof’s servers – is recovering using server space rented from Amazon​.com.

What’s interesting here is the scale of the onslaught directed at WikiLeaks; 28 times greater than the average DDOS attack, according to the AP.

WikiLeaks said the malicious traffic was coming in at 10 gigabits per second on Tuesday, which would make it a relatively large effort. According to a study by Internet security company Arbor Networks, the average denial of service attack over the past year was 349 megabits per second, 28 times slower than the stream Wikileaks reported.

While fairly basic, could this DDOS hit be the first public example of the offensive operation by U.S. government cyber operators – a community that’s normally very coy about its offensive plans, techniques and capabilities?

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So, remember the news a couple of weeks ago that Iran was claiming to have built its own version of the S-300 SAM. Well, we were skeptical about the Iranian ability to develop such a weapon. Especially since Tehran was so keen to buy that missile from Russia until the Kremlin killed the deal earlier this year.

Now, it appears Iran has actually got a hold of some serious offensive rocketry.  Apparently, Tehran has purchased 19 land-launched missiles from North Korea that are based on the Soviet R-27 missile — which was designed as a submarine launched nuclear missile in the 1960s and 1970s.

From The New York Times’ coverage of the latest Wikileaks release:

The North Korean version of the advanced missile, known as the BM-25, could carry a nuclear warhead. Many experts say that Iran remains some distance from obtaining a nuclear warhead, especially one small enough to fit atop a missile, though they believe that it has worked hard to do so.

Still, the BM-25 would be a significant step up for Iran.

Today, the maximum range of Iran’s known ballistic missiles is roughly 1,200 miles, according to experts. That means they could reach targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel, as well as all of Turkey and parts of Eastern Europe.

The range of the Russian R-27, launched from a submarine, was said to be up to 1,500 miles.

Rocket scientists say the BM-25 is longer and heavier, and carries more fuel, giving it a range of up to 2,000 miles. If fired from Iran, that range, in theory, would let its warheads reach targets as far away as Western Europe, including Berlin. If fired northwestward, the warheads could easily reach Moscow.

A range of 2,000 miles is considered medium or intermediate. Traditionally, the United States has defined long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles as having ranges greater than 3,400 miles.

The fuel for the advanced engines goes by the tongue-twisting name of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, according to the secret cables. It is a highly toxic, volatile clear liquid with a sharp, fishy smell.

Yes, this may be a big leap ahead for the Middle Eastern country’s ability to reach out and touch its enemies, but don’t forget, the R-27 is an old design that was retired by the Soviets in the 1980s.

This is the same kind of missile that famously blew up in the launch tube of a Soviet sub in 1986. Whoops.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not deadly to actual enemies. Our Minuteman III ICBMs came online before the R-27 was introduced and they remain one of the U.S.’ primary nuclear weapons.

You have to wonder what impact, if any, this will have on NATO’s ability to persuade Russia to support the U.S.-led European missile defense shield? Oh, and that missile shield is set to be in place by 2020. Looks like it could be needed a little sooner.

It appears these missiles actually did have an impact on Russia’s willingness to get tougher on Iran via economic sanctions.

Here’s an interesting account in the Times of how the revelation that Tehran had missiles capable of hitting Moscow brought the Kremlin around:

Russia is deeply skeptical that Iran has obtained the advanced missiles, or that their North Korean version, called the BM-25, even exists. “For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile,” a Russian official said. (That argument was dealt a blow last month, when North Korea rolled out what some experts identified as those very missiles in a military parade.)

Whatever the dynamic, Mr. Obama had removed the burr under the Russians’ saddle, and in January 2010, one cable reported, a senior Russian official “indicated Russia’s willingness to move to the pressure track.”

The cables obtained by WikiLeaks end in February 2010, before the last-minute maneuvering that led to a fourth round of Security Council sanctions and even stiffer measures — imposed by the United States, the Europeans, Australia and Japan — that experts say are beginning to pinch Iran’s economy. But while Mr. Ahmadinejad has recently offered to resume nuclear negotiations, the cables underscore the extent to which Iran’s true intentions remain a mystery.

As Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi put it in one cable: “Any culture that is patient and focused enough to spend years working on a single carpet is capable of waiting years and even decades to achieve even greater goals.” His greatest worry, he said, “is not how much we know about Iran, but how much we don’t.”

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The Scene of A Bombing That Killed an Iranian Nuclear Scientist

Well, the crazy spy vs Iranian nuke scientist saga continues. This weekend saw the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist by what sounds like some sort of sticky bomb, (remember Saving Private Ryan?).

One scientist was killed and his wife wounded when their car was approached by attackers on motorcycles who somehow attached a bomb to his car before speeding away to detonate it. Another Iranian nuclear scientist and his wife were wounded in a similar, simultaneous attack. It turns out this isn’t the first time this has happened.

From the New York Times:

The attacks were similar to a bombing last January in which a remote-controlled bomb killed another physics professor, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, outside his home.

Naturally:

The Iranian authorities also blamed that attack on the United States and Israel, a charge the State Department dismissed as absurd.

Who knows who was behind it. Nevertheless, all this seems to be the latest in the game to keep Iran from getting nukes. Remember this very bizarre incident? One can only ask, do assassinations have an effect in persuading Iran to cut its nuclear ambitions or do they simply encourage Tehran to keep plugging away at building a nuke by making the government feel under siege?

Here’s the rest of the Times article.

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Given all the bad news coming out about the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program in recent weeks, I asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz if he is concerned that any cuts to the Marines troubled F-35B program could hurt the Air Force:

“If we don’t produce the same amount of airplanes, clearly there’s cost impacts” said Schwartz. “The F-35 is important to lots of folks [three U.S. armed services and eight international partners] and my expectation is that both government and industry will get after making this right.”

In the wake of Britain’s move to swap its F-35Bs for F-35C carrier variants and the recent suggestion by the presidentially-mandated deficit reduction panel that the U.S. should cut the F-35B, one has think that the Pentagon is at least considering swapping the B-model JSF and replacing it with the C.

This move would keep overall F-35 purchase numbers high and would redirect resources away from the troubled B and into the A and C-programs. The Marines would lose the ability to fly from smaller ships and austere ground sites, but with the C they would maintain a modern ship-borne fighter fleet. The Pentagon is likely asking how often the Marines’ fleet of AV-8B Harrier jump jets’s ability to fly from amphibious assault ships or random forward locations has been key to an operation?  In theory it gives the Marines a critical edge — but in practice … maybe not.

Check out this article from Armed Forces Journal weighing the merits of forward basing STOVL jets. It makes an interesting point about the cost of keeping a plane like the F-35B close to the front lines:

Forward basing is more than a logistical quagmire. As the price continues to climb and the number scheduled for purchase continues to descend, these aircraft will become national assets that are closely guarded, and the U.S. does not typically stage national assets within range of the enemy’s indirect fires.

In 2005, a rocket attack destroyed one British Harrier and damaged another while they sat on the ramp in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It seems unrealistic to expect $120-million, fifth-generation STOVL fighters like the F-35B to operate out of forward bases or austere locations. They may retain the capability to do so, but at the expense of range, useful load and a higher purchase price.

If the Marines lose the F-35B, they could try to rely on older F/A-18 Hornets and Harriers, but how useful will these legacy jets be in the coming decades against anything but insurgents? Another option is to buy new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, a jet the Navy already plans to use in tandem with the F-35. This might make sense. The Super Hornet would give the Marines low-cost, quality fast jet air support that’s better equipped to deal with 21st Century air defenses than older F/A-18s.

However, either of these moves would reduce purchases of F-35s by the hundreds. This would increase the overall cost of the airplane — something no one wants to see given the government’s troubled fiscal climate.

Buying C-model jets would give the Marines modern, carrier-borne tacair jets with considerably more range and payload than the B and would help keep the cost of the overall F-35 program stable compared to rising fixed costs caused by dropping hundreds of jets. (There would still some financial waves via sunk costs from pulling out of the B). The amphibious service would lose its ability to operate from certain ships or bases, but it would retain a stealthy fighter capable of being deployed on ships that’s cheaper (on a per-unit basis) than the F-35B.

I’m not saying this is the best route or even what will happen. But like I said earlier, F-35 Program Manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and his team have got to be at least weighing these factors as they plot the future of the F-35 program. 

– John Reed

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Check this out, it’s a tease from a story we’ll soon be posting on out sister site, DoDBuzz:

The U.S. Air Force’s top officer is concerned that delays in software engineering for the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter could delay the service’s fielding of the jet.

“I’m still concerned, concerned on schedule primarily – a little bit less on technical matters – software, again, appears to be a potential pacing item here and that has me concerned in terms of deliveries,“said Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz today during a breakfast with reporters in Washington.

He went on to say that while the plane is ahead of schedule in terms of test flights, test points and has had no “failures or surprises” structurally, delays in writing code for the plane have him worrying about whether it will reach initial operational capability by early 2016.

“There are some issues with respect to timing on software development, and we don’t have complete understanding on whether or not that will affect the IOC which was predicted after the Nunn-McCurdy assessment to be April of 2016,” said Schwartz.

He was referring to the, so called, Nunn-McCurdy legislation which caps cost growth on major weapons buys.  The F-35 program was reorganized by the Pentagon last spring after its spiraling costs caused it to breach the cost limits laid out by that statute.

The Air Force plans to buy 1,763 of the jets, making it the largest F-35 customer in the world.

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U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz weighed in on the situation on the Korean Peninsula this morning, telling reporters that while American fighter jets remain on their normal alert status, the U.S. has plenty of firepower in the region in case North Korea gets even more trigger happy.

“Clearly, we have substantial Air Force assets in a number of locations in the Western Pacific both on the Korean Peninsula at Osan and Kunsan as well as at Kadena [Japan] and mainland Japan and further east in Guam,” said Schwartz. “Those assets are certainly ready and the commander of Pacific Command, [Adm.] Bob Willard, and Gen. Skip Sharp [commander of all forces in South Korea] are prepared to use those assets if they’re required.”

He went on to say that while the U.S. is ready to respond, the situation is currently under the control of the South Korean air force.

“I think it’s significant that it’s the [South Korean air force] that’s principally in the lead as we speak with as many as eight F-15s flying [combat air patrols] at the moment.”

He then described this morning’s artillery exchange as the most recent in a number of “provocations” from North Korea.

“The bottom line is, we have substantial capability on the peninsula and in the immediate environments to sustain a very credible deterrent posture,” said the general when asked his thoughts on basing tactical nuclear warheads in South Korea.

Schwartz then said he would prefer to give his advice on the nuclear issue to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the press before adding, “there is no question that there is a very substantial air power and joint team capability in the Western Pacific that, certainly, the North Koreans must respect.”

All this comes after North and South Korea spent the morning lobbing dozens of artillery shells at one another killing at least two South Korean marines and wounding 18 more people. The exchange took place between a South Korean island and the North’s mainland close to where a South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, was sunk in March, according to the New York Times.  In contrast to Schwartz’s statements, the Times reports that South Korean fighter jets were placed on alert but did not fly.  

The situation there remains tense with the thousands of old soviet artillery tubes in the North pretargeted on installations throughout the south. Needless to say, any conflict would get very nasty if it escalated out of control. The U.S. has several squadrons of F-16s, A-10s at Osan and Kunsan Air Bases in south Korea and the U.S. army has close to 20,000 troops scattered around the country. These U.S. units along with the South Korean military can hopefully stave off the North long enough for reinforcements to arrive from nearby bases in Asia.  

From the Korea Times:

The North fired shells from bases in Gaemeori and Mudo, 12 to 13 kilometers from Yeonpyeong.

The North Korean army is believed to have about eight 27-kilometer-range 130mm howitzers and eight 76 guns with a range of 12 kilometers.

By number, the North is said to have deployed about 1,000 artillery pieces on islands near the NLL. Most are known to be hidden in mountain caves and tunnels.

Yeonpyeong Island lies only about 12 kilometers from the North Korean mainland.

The South Korean military responded with the advanced K9 self-propelled howitzer. The K9 carries a 155mm/.52 caliber gun with a maximum firing range of 40 kilometers.

A JCS official said the number of North Korean casualties had not been confirmed but the damage to the North would be serious in consideration of K9’s much better capability.

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By Kevin Coleman – DefenseTech Cyber Warfare Correspondent

Last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the future holds a major threat from cyber technologies that will require civil and military coordination to shield American networks from attack. He went on to add, “that’s just the reality that we all face.”  

Enough with the warnings, it is well past time for action. The U.S. has a habit of waiting until something happens to take action. Gates and other military and intelligence leaders, past and present, have all talked about working with the private sector to address this growing threat. The price tag is high. One estimate put the cost of protecting our critical infrastructure (repair and / or replace) at $60 billion over a 5 year period. Given the current attitude of business leaders, the private sector will NOT spend this kind of cash any time soon. 

The cyber attack reviews and analysis that go on behind closed doors are chilling to say the least. Given these details are not public, critics are quick to point out the lack of ‘evidence’ of cyber hostilities. Other are concerned about the trouncing our civil liberties in the process of securing our critical systems and cyber space. We need to keep in mind that the threats from cyber space are far too significant and potentially damaging for the traditional sit and wait attitude.

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